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Sunday, May 11, 2014
Five key issues as we reach the quarter pole

By David Schoenfield

Whenever people say baseball is in trouble I point them to a game like Sunday's Yankees-Brewers contest in Milwaukee, a fun back-and-forth game played before a loud, soldout crowd of over 43,000 fans at Miller Park.

Yes, it was the Yankees and it was Mother's Day, but Milwaukee is the smallest market in the majors and all three games in the series drew 40,000-plus fans. If you put an exciting, quality product on the field you have the potential to bring in baseball-loving fans like the Brewers are doing.

The game came down to the ninth inning and Mark Teixeira tied it with a dramatic, two-out home run off Francisco Rodriguez, the first run K-Rod has allowed in 20 appearances this season. Against Adam Warren in the bottom of the ninth, however, Rickie Weeks doubled with one out. It looks like a line drive in the box score but it was actually a broken-bat chopper down the first-base line that skipped past Teixeira, who was playing off the line against the right-handed Weeks.

After a wild pitch, it appeared Warren might escape the inning when he struck out Lyle Overbay on a nice changeup, but Mark Reynolds grounded an 0-2 slider past a diving Yangervis Solarte at third base for the walk-off hit. Reynolds got the obligatory mob celebration at first base and Brewers fans went home happy.

It was the second straight one-run victory for the Brewers after Saturday's 6-5 win in which they scored off Alfredo Aceves in the seventh inning. They were two nice wins for Milwaukee, which had dropped seven of nine before the victories. If there's a baseball question off those games, it's this: Is the Yankees' middle relief a strength or a weakness?

The retirement of Mariano Rivera and promotion of David Robertson to closer left the rest of the Yankees bullpen a major unknown. So far, I'd give the pen a B-minus grade so far. It's 4-6 with a 3.91 ERA (19th in the majors), although it lost three games this week. The biggest positive is the pen ranks fourth in the majors in strikeout rate, behind only the Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks. The Yankees have received solid work so far from Warren (0.926 WHIP), one-time prospect Dellin Betances, who has 33 strikeouts in 20 innings, and Mariners cast-off Shawn Kelley, who picked up four saves when Robertson was injured and is now the primary setup guy.

It's kind of a no-name group other than Robertson, but it has the chance to be a surprising part of the Yankees' 2014 success. The pen will be tested a little more in the next two weeks with CC Sabathia landing on the DL with inflammation in his knee. Aceves will likely move into Sabathia's spot in a rotation that is without Ivan Nova for the year, Michael Pineda for another month and now Sabathia. With the rotation suddenly thin, the bullpen has to be good.

Here are five other issues to think about as we approach the quarter pole:

1. Can the Colorado Rockies hit -- and win -- on the road?

The Rockies lost twice in Cincinnati over the weekend, including 4-1 on Sunday as Homer Bailey shut them down. They did score 11 runs on Saturday but they're now 13-5 at home, 10-12 on the road. They're hitting .355/.401/.600 at home (!) and .258/.306/.426 on the road. That's the 12th-best wOBA on the road, a big improvement from last season when the Rockies ranked 25th in road wOBA.

You'll hear people talk about the Rockies' pitchers needing to come through, but I think their key will be scoring runs on the road. Over the past 10 seasons (2004-13), the Rockies have the biggest difference between home wins and road wins in the majors (113 more wins at home). Their problem hasn't been winning at Coors Field but winning on the road, and the statistics show their offense declines more away from Coors than their pitchers improve away from Coors.

2. How is Don Mattingly going to sort out this Dodgers outfield situation?

The presumption with that question, I suppose, is that the Dodgers' outfield has been a problem. Guess what? The Dodgers' outfield ranks third in the majors with a .352 wOBA, behind only the Rockies and Blue Jays. Yasiel Puig has been great, Matt Kemp has been OK and Scott Van Slyke has been terrific in limited action. Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, however, both have an OPS under .700 and have combined for just three home runs, leading Dodgers fans to wonder if and when prospect Joc Pederson will eventually be given a chance.

Pederson is hitting .373/.481/.679 at Triple-A Alburquerque, with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases entering Sunday. However, that is Alburquerque, which is a hitters' haven, and Pederson has 41 strikeouts in 35 games, so more time in the minors won't hurt. The other issue is that Kemp appears to be a major liability defensively in center, both by the defensive metrics (-5 defensive runs saved entering Sunday) and the eye test. Come September, it's possible the best Dodgers outfield will be Kemp in left, Pederson in center and Puig in right, with Van Slyke possibly platooning with Pederson (moving Kemp to center). I don't know where that leaves Ethier and Crawford, but GM Ned Colletti may eventually face the difficult dilemma of sitting two veterans (good luck trading either one) for a rookie who may be the better player.

3. Is there anything positive to say about the Rays right now?

Well, let's see: The rotation is 12th in the AL in ERA, the bullpen is 11th, the offense is seventh in wOBA, the defense is at -6 DRS entering Sunday, and Wil Myers and Evan Longoria haven't teed off yet. Oh, and the team's record is 16-22. I'm searching ... OK, Desmond Jennings is playing well. There have been some injuries in the rotation, but still some stuff I can't figure out. Take Chris Archer, Sunday's starter and loser after he allowed eight hits and four walks in five innings. Last year, his slider was one of the nastiest pitches in the game, as right-handers hit .195 with one extra-base hit against. This year, they're hitting .464 against the slider and already have three doubles and three home runs off it. Without that slider, Archer is mostly a two-pitch guy and his changeup isn't good enough yet.

I guess the point in all this: I'm very concerned about the Rays. They always put together a great run at some point during the season, but you have to wonder if the pitching is good enough to do that this season.

4. Which five position players should lose playing time?

OK, let's try these guys:

1. Dan Uggla, Braves (.184/.248/.272): Of course. Over a year of bad baseball now.

2. Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.189/.262/.295): The Giants are doing fine without Pablo producing, but this a team that now relies on its offense more than its rotation.

3. Brad Miller, Mariners (.165/.223/.281): I liked his bat coming into the season but he's been terrible at the plate and made some crucial errors in the field. Nick Franklin may not have the range to play shortstop but he's pounding the ball at Tacoma (.376/.459/.677 entering Sunday), and teammate Chris Taylor, more of a legitimate shortstop, is also hitting at Tacoma (.353/.395/.579). The Mariners are a game over .500 and need some offense.

4. Carlos Santana, Indians (.148/.319/.281): Surprisingly, his defense at third base has been OK, but what's happened to his batting? He's second in the majors in walks so he's still getting on base, but maybe he's taken the whole plate discipline thing a little too far.

5. Josh Reddick, A's (.214/.279/.286): He plays a mean right field but the bat has gone south since his 32-homer season in 2012. The A's are third in the AL in runs even though they're getting nothing from Reddick, their second basemen or part-time first baseman Daric Barton. Expect Craig Gentry to continue to get more time in right field if Reddick continues to struggle.

5. OK, how about five pitchers on the hot seat?

1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (2-3, 6.44 ERA): His average fastball velocity is down 1 mph, but does that explain why his batting average allowed is .329? Maybe, as his fastball is getting tattooed at a .413 clip and he's averaging barely five innings per start.

2. Francisco Liriano, Pirates (0-3, 4.64 ERA): He's never been known for his consistency. It all came together last year, but wild Liriano is back with 21 walks in 42⅔ innings, part of the reason the Pirates' rotation is last in the majors in WAR.

3. Homer Bailey, Reds (3-2, 4.72 ERA): I'm not that worried about him and he rebounded with a strong effort against the Rockies on Sunday. Still, added pressure comes with that big contract and he'll be expected to get that ERA into the low-to-mid 3s sooner rather than later.

4. Tim Lincecum, Giants (2-2, 5.55 ERA): Fifty hits and six home runs in 35⅔ innings. Those who questioned the two-year, $35 million contract appear to be correct so far.

5. CC Sabathia, Yankees (3-4, 5.28): As mentioned, he just landed on the DL for at least two weeks. Can he still win with diminished velocity? We'll see.