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Monday, May 30, 2011
Corey Patterson a story of revival

By David Schoenfield

Corey Patterson was supposed to have many weekends like this one, games in which he’d be the best player on the field, a tantalizing mix of power, speed and defense. He had five hits on Saturday in Toronto’s 9-8 victory over the White Sox, including the game-winning home run in the 14th inning off Gavin Floyd, a low screamer that just cleared the fence in right field. It was just the seventh time in 30 years that a player had five hits and a walk-off home run in the same game. He added four more hits in Sunday’s 13-4 rout, including another home run.

Corey Patterson, super stud. A decade ago, this is the way it supposed to happen.

Before the 2000 season, Baseball America rated him the No. 3 prospect in baseball. The next year, he was moved up to No. 2, behind only another center fielder named Josh Hamilton. The glowing report in BA’s “2001 Prospect Handbook” read, in part: “He’s the best hitter, the fastest runner and top outfielder defender in the organization. His other two tools, power and arm strength, are both above-average. His top-of-the-line speed is probably his most impressive physical asset, and he has a chiseled physique with biceps that seems a couple of sizes too large for his 5-foot-10 frame.”

The Cubs rushed him through the majors and he debuted just a few weeks after his 21st birthday. They loved his makeup and work ethic. When the Cubs drafted Mark Prior in 2001, Cubs fans could envision the future: Patterson leading the offense, Prior leading the pitching, and pennants coming to Wrigley.

But baseball is a difficult sport. Athletic ability and tools aren’t always enough. Young talent disappoints as often as it surprises. That scouting report on Patterson hinted at a couple of problems: He had hit just .195 in the minors against left-handed pitching. His plate discipline needed improvement.

Those, indeed, would become his tragic flaws.

In his first full season in 2002, Dusty Baker entrusted him to the leadoff or No. 2 spot much of the season. Patterson hit .253 with 14 home runs in 153 games ... but with a strikeout/walk ratio of 142/19, leading to an abysmal .284 on-base percentage. (Dusty hasn’t yet met the speedy outfielder with the poor OBP he hasn’t loved to hit leadoff.) Patterson actually played better the next season, hitting .298 with 13 home runs, before a knee injured prematurely ended his season in July.

But that would be the highlight season of his Cubs career. After hitting .215/.254/.348 in 2005, he was traded to Baltimore for two minor leaguers. It just wasn’t going to work in Chicago, especially as Cubs fans booed him loudly and often during the ’05. season. "If he is not going to have a chance to be a full-time player, he is not going to be able to correct the things that led him to have a bad year last year," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said at the time of the trade. "It was not a good fit for him to be a bench player here at this point.”

He played a little better with the Orioles over two seasons, but not enough for them to keep him when he became a free agent after the 2007 season. A year in Cincinnati -- under Dusty Baker -- didn’t go well. He spent most of 2009 in the minors, making brief appearances with the Nationals and Brewers. He signed a minor league contract for 2010 with the Mariners, but he exercised his option to opt out in spring training. The Orioles picked him up. He became a free agent again. He was a baseball vagabond, now 31 years old, still a good defensive center fielder, but scraping for jobs. He’s made more than $13 million in his major league career -- no tragedy there -- but this was a guy who was going to make $13 million per season.

So he signed with the Blue Jays over the winter for $900,000, making the team out of spring training in part thanks to an injury to Scott Podsednik. And here he is, hitting .301/.333/.477 after his nine-hit weekend, the best weekend of his baseball career. After sweeping the White Sox, the Blue Jays are above .500 and just 3.5 games out of first place in the AL East. Corey Patterson is a big reason why.

He’s unlikely to keep this up. He still swings at too many bad pitches -- 35 strikeouts, just nine walks. Entering Sunday, according to FanGraphs, he had swung at 37 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, a rate actually higher than his career rate. He hasn’t suddenly learned to recognize sliders off the plate. For his career, among outfielders with at least 4,000 career plate appearances, only Tony Armas has a lower career OBP.

But I’ll be rooting for him. Maybe he can keep this up for another four months and play exciting baseball for the Jays.

Baseball is like that. It’s a cruel sport. But it also offers plenty of redemption stories. Corey Patterson could have given up in 2009, his career in tatters in the minor leagues. But he stuck with it. Maybe 2011 will be the season Corey Patterson’s talent -- and not his flaws -- finally shine.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

New York Yankees at Los Angeles Angels, Friday-Sunday

Friday: Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.67) vs. Jered Weaver (6-4, 2.10)
Saturday: CC Sabathia (6-3, 2.98) vs. Dan Haren (5-3, 2.29)
Sunday: Bartolo Colon (2-3, 3.77) vs. Ervin Santana (3-4, 3.95)

We’ve heard a lot about how the Yankees rotation has been better than expected. While that’s true, that’s not to be misinterpreted as thinking the Yankees’ rotation has been one of the best in the AL. Entering Sunday, it had the 10th-best ERA in the AL (4.04) and the 11th-best WHIP. Its ERA in May has been 4.00. The bullpen, even with Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano now on the DL, has been excellent, with a 2.97 ERA. Keep an eye on David Robertson, who has 35 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings.

For the Angels, Weaver is due. After winning his first six starts, he’s gone winless in his past six -- even though he’s allowed one run over his last two outings. His season numbers remain superb, with a .197 average against, 0.95 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

James Shields (5-3, 2.15) vs. Felix Hernandez (5-4, 3.19), Rays at Mariners, Thursday

Somehow the Mariners are 26-26 and only 1.5 games out of first place, despite: (1) King Felix hasn’t really dominated yet; (2) Ichiro Suzuki is hitting just .272; (3) Chone Figgins, the No. 2 hitter, is even worse, at .193; (3) Jack Cust has one home run; (4) their cleanup hitters have combined for three home runs and a .219 average; (5) their left fielders are hitting .188; (6) their center fielders are hitting .193; (7) closer David Aardsma has been on the DL all season and his replacement, Brandon League, lost four games in one week. What does that have to do with the pitching matchup of the week? Nothing, I guess, other than I expect a big game from Hernandez.

THREE SWINGS

1. Justin Verlander’s 132nd and final pitch on Sunday night against Boston was clocked at 100 mph. OK, so it was ball four and put two runners on in the eighth inning, but was it was another strong effort from the Tigers’ ace. Joaquin Benoit got Dustin Pedroia to fly out to left to escape the jam and protect Detroit’s 2-0 lead. Jose Valverde got the save. Interesting that Jim Leyland used a pitcher with a 6.16 ERA to get the biggest out of the game. Valverde had thrown 24 pitches (and got the loss with a blown save) in the opening game of the doubleheader, so Leyland may have been reluctant to use him ... but then why bring him in for the ninth with a three-run lead? Ahh, yes, you manage to the save no matter what.

1. The Brewers are 8-2 over their past 10 games and Yovani Gallardo has been a big reason why. He’s won his past five starts after pitching eight shutout innings against the Giants on Sunday. After a lackluster April, he pitched 35 innings in May and allowed just 20 hits and five runs. He’s back on track and the Milwaukee rotation is starting to look scary. Yes, Zack Greinke has a 5.79 ERA through five starts, but with a 39/3 SO/BB ratio through 28 innings, that ERA will drop.

3. Poor John Danks. First, he was just unlucky. Now he’s just bad. One of baseball’s best lefties the past few seasons, he’s now 0-8 after getting ripped by Toronto. He threw 51 pitches in the first inning. In his past four starts he’s allowed 22 runs in 23 1/3 innings. Ozzie Guillen can rant and rave all he wants, but that’s not going to turn around Danks’ luck.

RANT OF THE WEEK

For some reason, Joe Girardi has fallen in love with the intentional walk. After issuing just two intentional free passes in April, he’s issued 15 in May. Many studies have been done on the intentional walk and they all say the same thing: It’s not a good strategy. It opens up big innings. Use it too much and you’re asking for trouble.

Initially this season, Girardi used it only when trailing. And it kept working. His first six freebies all resulted in no further damage. Three times this season he intentionally walked Boston's Dustin Pedroia to face Adrian Gonzalez, and it worked all three times. So maybe he started getting a little brazen.

On May 11, he had Luis Ayala walk Kansas City's Melky Cabrera to load the bases with one out to face Eric Hosmer in extra innings. Ayala throws a sinker, so he was setting up a double play, but he also ended up facing a better hitter. Hosmer hit a sacrifice fly that proved to be the game-winner.

And then came May 23 against Toronto. Tied 1-1 in the sixth, Corey Patterson doubled off Bartolo Colon to open the inning. Girardi then walked Jose Bautista. After a groundout advanced the runners, he had Colon walk Juan Rivera, hitting .228 at the time. Aaron Hill singled in one run, Eric Thames walked with the bases loaded and J.P. Arencibia hit a bases-clearing double. Girardi’s two free passes set up the big inning. Toronto won 7-3.

Saturday night in Seattle, Mariano Rivera had runners on second and third in the bottom of the 12th with one out. Franklin Gutierrez was up, Adam Kennedy on deck. Even though Gutierrez strikes out a lot, Girardi walked him to bring up Kennedy (who had grounded into one double play all season), who singled in the winning run.

Keep it up, Joe. You’re playing with fire. By the way, Terry Francona has issued four intentional walks.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Daniel Descalso
Think Rockies fans got a little excited when Daniel Descalso couldn't hang on to a ninth-inning popup?