If the old saying is true that in baseball you shouldn't rush to judgment until June, then we can now rush to judgment since we're well into the month. Actually, I don't know if that's an old saying or not, but you hear it said, and it's probably mostly true. Remember when Vernon Wells was good?
So, let's make a judgment about the San Francisco Giants and their starting rotation. Matt Cain has scuffled. Tim Lincecum isn't much better than last year. Ryan Vogelsong was pounded and is now injured, replaced by veteran reliever Chad Gaudin, who hasn't even been a very good reliever. Barry Zito hasn't been the same Zito who beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series. Madison Bumgarner, their best pitcher, ranks 45th in ERA among major league starters. This is a rotation in trouble, and if the defending champs are to stay in contention, they'll need those guys to improve or find a way to upgrade.
Zito pitched Wednesday and the Pirates knocked him around for 11 hits and eight runs in 4.2 innings on their way to a 12-8 victory. There were a few seeing-eye singles mixed in there, but Zito has been getting hit all season, with 90 hits in 73.1 innings, a .306 opponents' batting average allowed that ranks 100th out of 105 qualified starters. His fastest pitch against the Pirates was clocked at 84.3 mph. Yes, season-long BABIP of .348 might suggest some bad luck, but his home run percentage -- he's allowed just four -- suggests some good luck. He's also trending downward, with 30 runs allowed over his past 34 innings.
Cain is the best bet to turn things around, with solid peripherals, but a .333 average with runners on base that should regress. Still, that leaves question mark with Zito, Lincecum and the fifth spot, even considering Gaudin has made two good starts.
Right now, the likely pool of noncontenders includes the Mets, Marlins, Cubs and Brewers in the National League, and the Blue Jays, Twins, White Sox, Mariners and Astros in the American League. From that group, I see four likely trade targets: Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins, Matt Garza and Scott Feldman of the Cubs and Josh Johnson of the Blue Jays. All are impending free agents. Nolasco is the most consistent of the group and the guy I'd go after; Garza has made five starts since returning from the DL and Johnson two after missing all of May. Their upside is high if they round into shape, but they come with more risk -- Johnson in particular.
Of course, Nolasco (3-7, 3.80 ERA, 72 SO, 22 BB in 87.2 innings) will be sought after by several teams, so it will take a decent prospect to acquire him -- and the Giants' farm system isn't highly rated right now, so just because the Giants might want Nolasco doesn't mean they'll get him. General manager Brian Sabean loves those veteran pickups, so you have to expect him to make a deal; and remember that the guy he picked up last year, Hunter Pence, still had another year left on his deal, so the pool of candidates might not just be impending free agents, but guys under longer-term contracts (still don't see the Phillies trading Cliff Lee, however).
The team the Giants beat in the World Series has its own issue to fix, as we saw Wednesday afternoon. Detroit Tigers closer Jose Valverde was one strike away from closing out a 2-0 victory against the Royals when Lorenzo Cain swatted an 0-2 hanging splitter for a two-run homer. Valverde has held batters to a .197 average, but five of the 13 hits he's allowed have left the park. With three blown saves in 12 chances, he doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially after his collapse last October.
The Tigers have now lost four games they led entering the ninth inning, and the bullpen is a collective 4-12. Some of the bullpen issues have been overblown -- its 3.87 ERA ranks 15th in the majors, and it ranks fourth in strikeout percentage. It's a middle-of-the-pack bullpen with a shaky closer.
But that doesn't mean the Tigers won't look to upgrade. Possible trade targets: Steve Cishek, Marlins; Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners; Glen Perkins, Twins; Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies; Huston Street, Padres.
Perkins is signed to a team-friendly deal through 2015 and plays for a division rival, so I don't see that one happening. The Tigers could try to go back to the well where they stole Doug Fister and get Wilhelmsen from the Mariners, but with Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik fighting to keep his job, he might not want to punt his closer for a prospect. Plus, Wilhelmsen is still cheap, so he'd be expensive to acquire -- though he hasn’t exactly been lights-out, blowing his fourth save on Wednesday. Papelbon has a big contract and might not be available anyway, and Cishek might not be an upgrade. Street is currently on the DL, and his home run problems this year have been more acute than Valverde's (seven in 20.1 innings).
I think the Tigers already have their closer: I'd promote Drew Smyly, who can crank it up to 94-95 mph in relief and has been excellent so far, with a 2.11 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 38 innings. He's crushed left-handers (.127 average, no extra-base hits) but, as a guy groomed in the minors as a starter, isn't a LOOGY. And while you often hear about the desire to acquire a Proven Closer, the past two World Series winners entered the playoffs with relievers who had become their team's closer during the season -- Jason Motte with the Cardinals in 2011 and Sergio Romo last year.
And if the Tigers want more bullpen depth to go with Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, how about going after White Sox setup man Jesse Crain, who has allowed two runs in 30 innings? He's a free agent, and with the Sox dropping into the cellar, he should be available, though it's unlikely the division rivals would make a deal.
But a back three of Crain, Benoit and Smyly would be a championship-caliber trio to go with the Tigers' championship-caliber rotation.