Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Pointing out the good amid all the bad
By Jerry Crasnick
Hey, it's easy to muster enthusiasm for the stretch drive when your team is in a pennant race, showing a pulse in the wild-card chase or playing at least .500 ball. Every minor league call-up, positive news on the injury front or Freddy Garcia signing brings an adrenalin rush and renewed faith that things will work out OK in the end.
The daily reality is crueler in Oakland, where general manager Billy Beane has done another roster reinvention on the fly, and Cleveland, where the high hopes of April have dissipated amid the sell-off of July and August. In San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, you'll find lots of guys playing for contracts, playing for jobs in 2009 or, in some cases, playing out the string.
Still, positive omens can be found amid the rubble. In this week's installment of Starting 9, we pay tribute to major leaguers who have made unexpectedly strong contributions to give losing teams a reason to feel good amid all the bad news. With apologies to San Francisco's Brian Wilson, Detroit's Armando Galarraga and Seattle's Jose Lopez, here are nine members of what we like to call our "silver lining" edition.
Joakim Soria, Royals (32 saves, 1.51 ERA)
Starters Zack Greinke and Brian Bannister got a lot of hype out of the chute, but the most enduring buzz in Kansas City has revolved around the Royals' closer. Soria has a WHIP of 0.75 and is eliciting raves from American League hitters for his dominant stuff and businesslike demeanor. Sacrilegious as it might seem, Soria even has drawn a Mariano Rivera comparison or two.
"Nasty," Minnesota's Justin Morneau told the Kansas City Star. "He's 93-94 [mph], but it looks like it's 97-98. He's confident, comes right at you, doesn't mess around. He's got a chance to be one of the best closers in the game for sure."
San Diego general manager Kevin Towers justifiably has earned a reputation for building good bullpens on the cheap, but the Padres let a good one slip away when they left Soria exposed and allowed Kansas City to select him in the 2006 Rule 5 draft.
Several years ago, Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao earned the nickname "Mexicutioner" by sending several prominent Mexican opponents to the canvas. Now Royals fans have applied the name to Soria, a native of Monclova, Mexico. He takes no offense at the designation.
When a local radio station made up "Mexicutioner" T-shirts in July, devotees snapped up 5,000 of them in a hurry. Nothing moves merchandise like a cold stare and a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Brad Ziegler, Athletics (37 innings, 21 hits, 0 runs)
It's been a grim few weeks since Billy Beane traded away Rich Harden and Joe Blanton to hasten yet another reconstruction in Oakland. The Athletics, 48-41 and six games behind the Angels at the time of the Harden deal, since have dive-bombed to oblivion.
Thank goodness for the Ziegler watch. On July 27, Ziegler pitched two shutout innings against Texas to break George McQuillan's 101-year-old record of 25 straight scoreless innings at the start of a career. Ziegler since has extended the streak to 37 innings and now will get the opportunity to close some games for the Athletics.
Ziegler's story is well known in baseball circles. He survived two skull fractures, did a tour of independent ball with the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers and appeared to be on the road to nowhere until A's minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick approached him in 2007 and suggested he try throwing the ball sidearm.
There's no mystery to Ziegler's success. He's thrown 68 ground balls and only 15 fly balls, for a staggering 4.53 ratio. No matter what happens from here, it's easy to see him carving out a nice, Chad Bradford-like career for himself.
Aubrey Huff, Orioles (.302 batting average, 24 homers, 76 RBIs)
Here's a great way to fall out of favor in the town that worshipped Cal Ripken Jr: Hit 15 home runs in the first year of a three-year, $20 million contract. Perpetuate a reputation for slow starts, a half-hearted work ethic and a penchant for producing only when your team is out of the race.
Add some ill-advised comments about Baltimore and its lack of night life on the "Bubba the Love Sponge" radio show, and it's easy to see why the locals viewed Huff with skepticism in April.
Four months later, Huff is Mr. Popularity at Camden Yards. He leads the AL in extra-base hits, ranks third in total bases, fourth in doubles, sixth in homers, seventh in slugging and eighth in RBIs. Huff and Kevin Millar, who combined for 32 home runs out of the first base-DH spots in 2007, already have 42 homers with seven weeks left to play.
Huff started slowly in spring training after January surgery for a sports hernia, but a mechanical alteration at the suggestion of Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley has made a huge difference. During a one-on-one tutorial in July 2007, Crowley urged Huff to stand taller in the batter's box and make a greater effort to use the entire field. Huff hit .346 in August and September 2007, and he's never looked back.
Ryan Doumit, Pirates (.332 batting average, 12 homers, 43 RBIs)
No one has ever questioned Doumit's ability to hit. The Pirates liked his bat enough to draft him in the second round in 1999, and Doumit showed promise from the outset when he hit .313 for Williamsport in the New York-Penn League the following season.
But questions about his defense and ability to stay healthy were putting a crimp in his progression, so Doumit took the initiative this past winter. He went on a strict conditioning program, eliminating pizza and other junk food from his diet and loading up on chicken, and lost 15 pounds.
"It was definitely a pain in the butt, but it was worth it," Doumit said. "It's something that I know I needed to do for my career."
While Doumit has missed time this year with a thumb injury and a concussion, his .908 OPS ranks second among major league catchers behind Atlanta's Brian McCann. He also has improved behind the plate, even if Pittsburgh's staff ERA (5.14) doesn't reflect it.
Doumit, a switch-hitter, has a reputation as a dead pull hitter, but this year, he's made an effort to take the ball the opposite way. That's forced him to wait an extra split-second and see the ball longer. He is hitting .382 with runners in scoring position.
"He's getting ready to hit in a way that allows him to see the ball before he commits," Pirates hitting coach Don Long said. "As a result, he doesn't chase a lot of pitches."
Now that Jason Bay and Xavier Nady are gone, the Pirates hope center fielder Nate McLouth and Doumit can emerge as team leaders. They've expressed interest in signing both players to multiyear contracts.
Jody Gerut, Padres (.291 batting average, 11 homers, 32 RBIs)
After concluding Jim Edmonds was finished -- a premature assumption, based on his recent play in Chicago -- the Padres needed somebody to step in and fill the void in center field. That created an opportunity for Gerut, 30, to resurrect his career and provide one of baseball's best under-the-radar comeback stories.
Gerut, a Stanford product, hit .279 with 22 homers for Cleveland in 2003 to finish fourth in the AL rookie of the year balloting. But he tore up his knee the following season, and that led to a downward spiral that included two operations, brief and unsuccessful stops with the Cubs and Pirates, and a two-year hiatus from the majors.
Gerut has played capable defensive center field in San Diego and has taken over the leadoff spot for manager Bud Black. He has a .550 slugging percentage on the road, with nine of his 11 home runs away from Petco Park. His OPS increased from .708 in May to .829 in June to .893 in July.
It's been a rough year for Atlanta starters over age 30 -- not to mention 40. John Smoltz's career might be over after shoulder surgery. Tom Glavine has made the first two disabled list visits of his career with hamstring and elbow injuries. Mike Hampton's latest comeback attempt dragged on until July, and Tim Hudson just underwent Tommy John surgery.
But all is not lost. The Braves might have a keeper in Jurrjens, who has relied on a 91-94 mph fastball and effective changeup to lead rookie starters in wins, innings and ERA. It's probably not enough for him to overtake Cubs catcher Geovany Soto as the National League rookie of the year frontrunner, but you can expect his name to appear on a lot of writers' ballots.
Jurrjens' emergence has to be particularly distressing to the Tigers after they traded him for shortstop Edgar Renteria, who is looking older by the day. Jurrjens has given baseball fans in his native Curacao a reason to follow the Braves even with Andruw Jones now a Dodger.
Jurrjens isn't the only rookie success story in Atlanta. Former Mexican League mainstay Jorge Campillo, signed to a minor league deal in December by Braves director of baseball administration John Coppolella, is 7-4 with a 2.83 ERA.
Campillo is described by one baseball executive as a "very poor man's Greg Maddux" because of his fastball command, excellent changeup and 12-to-6 curveball. The Braves credit pitching coach Roger McDowell with helping Campillo succeed after he failed to cut it in a previous stop with Seattle.
Kelly Shoppach, Indians (12 HRs, 35 RBIs, .513 slugging percentage)
Shoppach was the first college catcher taken in the 2001 draft when the Red Sox picked him in the second round out of Baylor. But he was blocked by Jason Varitek in Boston, and it appeared he would have to forage for stray at-bats as Victor Martinez's backup in Cleveland, until the dynamic changed in June. Martinez went on the DL with an elbow injury, and Shoppach suddenly was afforded the luxury of playing regularly.
Always regarded as a very good catch-and-throw guy, Shoppach has thrown out only four of 27 base-stealers. But he's been a force with the bat, putting up a 1.090 OPS since the All-Star break. The highlight came in a 14-12 loss to Detroit on July 30, when he joined Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau as the second American Leaguer to amass five extra-base hits in a game.
Martinez is about to return from the DL, and Shoppach's emergence could mean more playing time for him at first base. Cleveland just acquired a highly regarded young catcher named Carlos Santana from the Dodgers in the Casey Blake trade, and Chris Gimenez hit .339 for Double-A Akron to earn a promotion to Triple-A Buffalo, so the Indians are starting to develop some organizational depth at the position.
Taylor Buchholz, Rockies (4-3, 1.69 ERA, 18 holds)
Buchholz once was a hot prospect in the Philadelphia chain, until doubts about his mental toughness and fortitude began to creep in. He barely had finished one start when he began worrying about how he would fare in the next.
Now 26 years old and with his third professional organization, Buchholz has warmed to life in the Colorado bullpen. He's in his element pitching three or four days a week, and he has more than enough life on his fastball and bite on his curve to make life uncomfortable for hitters. Nobody is calling him too soft or nice to succeed anymore.
The better Buchholz has pitched, the more inclined Rockies manager Clint Hurdle has been to use him in tight situations. Buchholz always has been a strike-thrower, with only 69 walks in 260 major league innings, and his stuff is equal-opportunity nasty. Righties are batting .200 against him this season, while lefties are hitting .150. He also has a 1.05 ERA away from Coors Field.
John Lannan, Nationals (6-11, 3.40 ERA)
Pay no attention to that win-loss record; Lannan has 16 quality starts -- more than Roy Halladay, Carlos Zambrano and Ben Sheets -- but he's been victimized by the second-worst run support in the majors (2.88 runs per game). Only the Reds' Aaron Harang has fared worse.
Lannan moved quickly through the Nationals' system after scouting director Dana Brown selected him in the 11th round of the 2005 draft. Now he looks like a lock to surpass Billy Harrell, Gary Holle and Tim Christman as the most accomplished Siena College alumni to play in the big leagues.
Lannan's most noteworthy moment in 2007 came when he broke Chase Utley's hand with a pitch. This year, he's been a challenge for hitters with a fastball in the 87-90 mph range, an effective changeup and a curve in the mid-70s.
"For a young pitcher, he really can compete and he has great poise on the mound," Nationals assistant GM Mike Rizzo said. "And he has great command of three pitches. That's what puts him over the top."
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.