Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Howard, Cano, Jones among slow starters
By Jerry Crasnick
Think you've had a demanding April, what with those nettlesome tax returns, high gas prices and a deluge of political robo-calls interrupting your dinner hour? You're not alone.
It's been a stressful month for a lot of big leaguers with track records and/or name recognition. For every Chipper Jones or Brandon Webb who's thriving, there's a corresponding Adam LaRoche (.117) or Matt Morris ($9.5 million salary, 9.15 ERA) wallowing in futility.
This week's edition of "Starting 9" takes a position-by-position look at All-Star-caliber players off to tepid or downright feeble starts. We throw in a bonus designated hitter free of charge, and assess the severity of each player's plight on a 1-to-10 scale -- with 1 signifying "don't sweat it" and 10 being worthy of panic.
(.207 batting average, .540 OPS)
While Jason Kendall, A.J. Pierzynski and some other veteran catchers have jumped out quickly, Johjima has been in a wall-to-wall funk. His bad April is reminiscent of his suspect September, when he finished the 2007 season in a 2-for-23 rut and the Mariners simply chalked it up to fatigue.
Johjima is a born hacker -- prone to jump on the first good fastball he sees -- so he's not inclined to work his way through problems with patience and plate discipline. He's a .284 hitter with a .323 on-base percentage as a Mariner, so he'll have to hit his way on base to make a contribution.
Johjima is a free agent this winter, and the Mariners, who need an offensive upgrade, must decide whether he fits in the long-term plan. Former first-round pick Jeff Clement's defense is a question, but he has an OPS of 1.150 for Triple-A Tacoma. How long until he warrants a call?
Concern level: 4. At least Johjima gets to work out his problems in the No. 8 spot in the order.
(.190 batting average, 30 strikeouts in 79 at-bats)
That $10 million salary arbitration award hasn't bought Howard much peace of mind this spring. Last year, he got off to a poor start because of a strained quadriceps that forced him onto the disabled list in May. This time around, he's just messed up mechanically.
You can't hit what you can't see, and Howard keeps telling manager Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson that he's having trouble picking up the ball out of the pitcher's hand. He doesn't trust his hands or his eyes enough to wait at the plate, so he's lunging at pitches and getting caught out in front.
"He's not comfortable, and when you're not comfortable in the box, a lot of bad things happen," Thompson said. "You just have to keep swinging until you get there. It's like a light switch. It'll flick on, and you'll have it."
Howard erupted for 10 home runs last June, 10 in July and 11 in September, so the law of averages dictates that several unfortunate NL pitchers are in for some hard-core suffering down the road.
Concern level: 2 for his hitting, and 4 for his defense.
Robinson Cano, Yankees 2B
(.173, four extra-base hits in 81 at-bats)
When Joe Torre compared Cano to Rod Carew in 2005, he wasn't necessarily predicting multiple batting titles. But Cano's fluid stroke, quick hands and mature approach have made a lot of baseball people believe there'll be at least one or two in his long-term future.
In the meantime, he's not immune to the occasional slump. Cano starts with his weight on his front foot, then gradually rocks back and loads as the pitcher begins his delivery. If the process is slightly off kilter, the consequences can be profound.
"He's such a rhythm and timing hitter, and his timing is a little bit off right now," said an American League scout. "I think it's just a case of, 'Wait until April is over.'"
Cano is hitting .139 with runners on base, and manager Joe Girardi recently gave him a day off against Tampa Bay. After Cano produced a game-winning pinch-hit homer, hitting coach Kevin Long observed that it might be just the thing to get him jump-started. Not yet.
Concern level: 2. Hey, he's still a decent bet to be hitting .300 by the All-Star break.
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies SS
(.163, no homers in 80 at-bats)
Ask baseball people, and a lot of them will tell you that the second major league season can be awfully difficult for a hitter.
"A young guy might see a lot of fastballs away in that first year," said a big league coach. "But anytime you have a breakout year, the league and the advance scouts pay more attention to you, and the other teams' pitching coaches bear down more on film. And maybe the second-year player thinks, 'I've got this thing licked.'"
Tulowitzki was hitting .185 last April 25, so he knows it isn't easy. He turned it around to hit 24 home runs, breaking Ernie Banks' NL record for a rookie shortstop, and finished second to Ryan Braun in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
This spring Tulowitzki endured an 0-for-20 slump and failed to pocket his first RBI until Colorado's 14th game. It's not exactly the start he had in mind after signing a new six-year, $31 million contract.
Concern level: 3. He's terrific and all, but he sure looks lost at the moment.
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 3B
(.225, two homers, nine RBIs)
The season couldn't have begun any more promisingly for Zimmerman. He bantered with President Bush in the clubhouse as Washington christened its new ballpark on national television on opening night. Then he capped off the festivities with a walk-off homer against Atlanta's Peter Moylan in a 3-2 Nationals victory.
The three weeks since? Not so hot. Zimmerman is waving at too many sliders off the plate and wasting hitter's counts by swinging at too many pitchers' strikes. He's 1-for-24 with runners in scoring position and batting .154 (4-for-26) at the new Nationals Park.
Zimmerman entered this season with a .239 average in April, so he knows what it means to dig his way out of trouble. The good news is, there's apparently no carryover effect from his two offseason wrist surgeries. After averaging 22 homers in two seasons at RFK Stadium, Zimmerman should flirt with 30 in the Nationals' more hitter-friendly new yard.
Concern level: 2. He's got the right temperament to handle peaks and valleys.
Andruw Jones, Dodgers CF
(.156, one homer in 64 at-bats)
Jones' early travails rekindle bad memories from last season, when his .222 batting average, .724 OPS and penchant for killing rallies made it a tough sales job for agent Scott Boras.
Jones turns 31 Wednesday, so it's hard to believe his bat speed has vanished. But he messed himself up swinging for the fences in the quest for big money a year ago, and it might require an overhaul to resurrect the old Andruw.
"He's in a horrible habit where he has no back-side pivot to unlock his hips, and every swing is an uppercut swing," said a scout. "It's a grooved swing, and if you happen to hit his bat, he's swinging ... so hard that he can do some damage. But there's very little adjustment to be a good hitter."
Just weeks into Jones' tenure with the Dodgers, the team's fans are already booing him with fervor. He has also become a target for acerbic Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, who dared him to climb on a scale last week and began referring to him as "Tubbo" when Jones' weight popped up at 248. So much for a Southern California honeymoon.
Concern level: 7.5. Hitting coach Mike Easler has his work cut out for him.
Jose Guillen, Royals RF
(.165 batting average, .195 OBP)
Guillen got a reprieve two weeks ago when his 15-day suspension from commissioner Bud Selig was rescinded as part of the new drug testing agreement between Major League Baseball and the players union.
His bat apparently failed to get the message: Twelve games into the season, Guillen was mired at .122. Just when it appeared he was coming around, he whiffed four straight times against C.C. Sabathia and the Cleveland bullpen Tuesday.
Royals hitting coach Mike Barnett attributes Guillen's problems to an early bout of cold weather and a desire to impress his new employers and justify his new three-year, $36 million deal. Guillen wouldn't be the first player to fall into the expectations trap.
"Maybe he's trying to be 'the guy' and do a little bit too much," Barnett said. "That says a lot about his pride -- that he wants to get off to a great start and really help this club win and justify what the club has given him.
"You'll hear people gripe, 'Oh yeah, he signed the big contract and now he's kind of sloughing off.' That's the furthest thing from the truth. He's worked extremely hard and been a great guy in the clubhouse."
In an attempt to ease the pressure, manager Trey Hillman recently dropped Guillen from cleanup to fifth behind Billy Butler. If Guillen can recover and hit, say, .280 with 25 homers and 80-90 RBIs, the Royals will be satisfied with the first year of their investment.
Concern level: 5. It's early yet, but who knows how he'll respond to the first big multiyear deal of his career?
Ryan Braun, Brewers LF
(.271 on base percentage)
Braun's shift from third base to left field was a pressure-reliever, rather than a pressure-enhancer, so we can discount that as a factor in his slow start. And he's yet to embrace teammate Prince Fielder's vegetarian lifestyle, so nobody's wearing out that theory on Milwaukee talk radio.
If the early numbers reveal anything, it's a less patient Braun than the kid who broke Mark McGwire's rookie record with a .634 slugging percentage. Braun has 17 strikeouts and only three walks, and he's seen an average of 3.41 pitches per plate appearances compared to 3.70 last season.
While Arizona's young hitters are tearing it up in April, Milwaukee's youthful bats are taking awhile to get cooking. It bodes well for the Brewers that the team is 12-8 even though Braun, Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall have yet to hit their stride at the plate.
Concern level: 2. Now that Braun is starting to roll, he might be at .300 by the start of May.
C.C. Sabathia, Indians P
(1-3, 10.13 ERA)
Sabathia, the prize of next winter's free agent class, was just plain ghastly in his first four outings. Try a .390 batting average against, and 14 walks in 18 innings for a guy with pinpoint control. Against that backdrop, those offensively-challenged Royals couldn't have come along at a better time.
Even before Sabathia whiffed 11 Kansas City hitters Tuesday, the Indians weren't ready to panic. Sabathia's fastball has been registering at 92-94 mph, and he hasn't altered his arm slot to compensate for any physical problems. Sabathia's biggest problem has been a lack of command. He's had difficulty pitching inside and thrown too many fat strikes down the middle when aiming for the corners.
Is Sabathia's unsettled contract situation weighing on his mind? Perhaps, but it's hard to believe he would come unglued to this extent.
Sabathia's workload has also come under scrutiny. He ranked sixth in the majors with 3,582 pitches last year, and first when you tack on the 311 he threw against New York and Boston in the playoffs. And his 256 innings pitched were about 60 more than his average for the previous six seasons.
Concern level: 4. After his performance a year ago, Sabathia deserves a little time and the benefit of the doubt.
And one more ...
Gary Sheffield, Tigers DH
(.308 slugging percentage, two RBIs in 52 at-bats)
It's been a rough April for designated hitters. While Frank Thomas is currently unemployed, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Jack Cust, Jose Vidro and Travis Hafner are all puttering along on the Interstate or in the low .200s.
Sheffield, meanwhile, is having problems with his right shoulder. Since hurting it in a collision with teammate Placido Polanco last July, he's batting .177 with three home runs in 57 games. And he's clearly not in raking mode after October surgery to repair his labrum.
Sheffield received good news Tuesday when a doctor's exam found no structural damage, but he still received cortisone shots in both his right and left shoulders. Look for him to rank among the MLB leaders in grimaces this season.
Concern level: 6.5. Sheffield is 39 years old and reliant on bat speed, so it's no slam dunk he'll have a productive season.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.