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Thursday, April 15, 2010
Is this a reality, or simply an illusion?

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

A week and a half into the season, here's what we think we know:

Brad Mills is sure going to miss the Red Sox. … The games are lasting a little too long for that not-so-trusty Orioles bullpen. … It's safe for Albert Pujols to look into a time share in Cooperstown. … And Joe West probably won't be using the word "pathetic" in any newspaper quotations for quite some time.

But here's what we don't know:

Which of those surprising April supernovas out there are for real -- and which aren't.

Yeah, reality can be kind of a murky concept this time of year, whether you're watching baseball or "The Real Housewives of New York City."

Not the portion of reality that involves people like Sir Albert and Joe Mauer, obviously. But perhaps you're wondering stuff like: "Martin Prado -- reality or illusion?"

Well, that's the kind of question Rumblings and Grumblings aspires to answer. So with the help of some of our favorite scouts, Rumblings is here to sort out who's for real and who's not:

Martin Prado
Prado

Martin Prado (Braves) -- Projected pace: .469 batting average, 304 hits, 81 doubles, 142 runs, .541 on base percentage, .594 slugging percentage
RATING: REAL DEAL

It's safe to guess that Prado isn't going to hit .469 all season, or average nearly two hits a night. But if you've been paying attention, it would be hard to conclude he's not going to be an offensive force, because this is no two-week phenomenon. Since the Braves made Prado their regular second baseman at the end of June last year, the only NL hitters with a higher batting average and on-base percentage than he's had (.331/.380) are Hanley Ramirez, Todd Helton and Pujols. Heard of them?

"He's made himself a very good player," said one scout. "He's a player who was considered a utility guy when he first came up. But he's used an intelligent approach to hitting to make himself a very productive player on a good team. He's following the same path, for me, as Placido Polanco."

Kelly Johnson (Diamondbacks) -- Projected pace: .360 average, 61 home runs, 142 runs, 122 extra-base hits, .467 OBP, .840 SLG
RATING: HUNG JURY

We can't rave about Prado without examining the guy who preceded him at second base with the Braves. And Johnson, too, is off to a great start, looking -- in the words of one scout -- "rejuvenated" by his escape from Atlanta. But not everyone is sold.

For every scout who loves his tools, you can find one who has reservations about his ability to apply them consistently. For every scout who tells you "He has an excellent eye, and the ballpark [in Arizona] fits him perfectly," you can find one who calls him too "defensively challenged."

"I don't see him as a 500-at-bat regular," said one scout, emphatically. "For me, I think he just projects as a productive major league role-player."

Nelson Cruz
Cruz

Nelson Cruz (Rangers) -- Projected pace: .414 average, 122 HRs, 243 RBIs, 183 extra-base hits, .486 OBP, 1.182 SLG
RATING: REAL DEAL

It's time to reflect upon the monster man who has been responsible for the most mind-fracturing stat of the entire season: Nelson Cruz has become the first player in the history of the sport to hit a home run in six of his team's first eight games in a season. Any season. Whew. Take that, Bambino.

So is he really this good? Anybody who's skeptical about Cruz's power should go back and check out a little Home Run Derby video from July. The power has always been real. The rest of the package will always include plenty of swinging and missing. But this is a man with lead-the-league-in-bombs kind of thump.

"Nobody in baseball has got as much power as this guy," said one scout. "And playing in that ballpark, he ought to hit 35 to 40 home runs easy."

Jeff Francoeur (Mets) -- Projected pace: .429 average, 61 HRs, 142 RBIs, .514 OBP, .929 SLG
RATING: GETTING REAL

Francoeur is now 83 games into his Mets career. And clearly, this is a man who needed to get out of Atlanta, because he's gone right back to being the same hitter he was when he first reached the big leagues. (His numbers in those 83 games as a Met: .322 batting average/.536 SLG/.892 OPS.)

"He's not missing the pitches he used to foul off," said one scout. "But all his home runs have come on hanging breaking balls, middle in. When the pitchers hit their spots, they're getting him out. But he's really improved his first-pitch discipline. He's not chasing those first-pitch breaking balls like he did. But he still can't help himself. He'll still go out of the zone later in an at-bat. So he's better, but I'm still not sold 100 percent yet.

"You know the funny thing, though? Who'd have thought that with a guy going to New York, there would be less pressure? But he needed that change of scenery."

Jon Rauch
Rauch

Jon Rauch (Twins) -- Projected pace: 90 saves, 0 blown saves, 1.80 ERA, 90 IP, 0 BB
RATING: NOT SO REAL

Everybody likes Rauch fine for what he is. It's just that nobody thinks this is what he is -- a shutdown closer on a team with big-time aspirations.

"For me, he's just a B-grade closer," said one scout. "He's not a guy you run out there to win a division. He's kind of like a Kevin Gregg type. He'll save you some games. He'll lose you some games. He gets you by until you can find someone better [in July]."

Daric Barton (A's) -- Projected pace: .333 average, .500 OBP, 0 HRs, 113 RBIs
RATING: NOT SO REAL

Barton has been a ballyhooed prospect ever since he accompanied Dan Haren and Kiko Calero to Oakland in the Mark Mulder trade. But which is the "real" him -- the April 2010 edition or the guy who hit .238, with a .339 OBP and .365 SLG, in 2008-09?

Our panel isn't sold that the answer is the 2010 model.

"He's got a good eye, but he's got a long swing," one scout said. "He'll have trouble keeping up what he's doing."

Ian Stewart
Stewart

Ian Stewart (Rockies) -- Projected pace: .367 average, 41 HRs, 81 extra-base hits, .444 OBP, .667 SLG
RATING: GETTING REAL

Is Stewart ever going to put up numbers that resemble his .293/.374/.524 minor league stats? Not everyone sees that coming. He hit .178 against left-handers last year, batted .221 at Coors Field and never pushed his average above .260 in any month. But even though one scout predicts it will be a "slow process," scouts still love his offensive skills and his "good professional approach."

"When I saw him in A-ball, I thought he was the second best A-ball hitter I'd ever seen, behind Manny [Ramirez]," said the scout who has bought in the most. "And that was just seeing the ball and being able to drive it gap-to-gap. I think he's getting back to that, and I think he'll have a huge year."

Casey McGehee (Brewers) -- Projected pace: .333 average, 41 HRs, 61 doubles, .394 OBP, .633 SLG
RATING: GETTING REAL

For a guy who just showed up in Milwaukee as a waiver-claimee and was theoretically just ticketed as a utility player, McGehee has been way more than the Brewers bargained for, and getting better all the time. For those who thought last year's .499 slugging percentage was an aberration, there has been more of the same this year. And McGehee keeps on making believers.

"He's got a bad body, and he's not a good defender, but he works so hard," one scout said. "His work ethic is so good, he's making himself into a good player. He has to work for everything he gets. But his power is legit, and he fits right into that group in Milwaukee."

Vernon Wells
Wells

Vernon Wells (Blue Jays) -- Projected pace: .323 average, 90 HRs, 180 RBIs, .447 OBP, .871 SLG
RATING: GETTING REAL

It's been three ugly years (.265/.317/.426) for a guy who looked as if he was headed for superstardom and is getting paid like it. But Wells looks like a different guy after wrist surgery. And we were surprised how willing our panelists were to buy into his April success, within reason.

"The big thing is, he looks healthy," one scout said. "He doesn't look as tentative. He's letting it go pretty good at the plate. He still struggles against good pitching, but he'll see enough mediocre pitching that I think he'll have a better year. I don't think he's a guy who can carry a club. But he's a lot better than what he was."

Chris Young (Diamondbacks) -- Projected pace: .344 average, 61 HRs, 284 RBIs, .371 OBP, .688 SLG
RATING: HUNG JURY

The most eye-popping number on Young's stat sheet isn't the home runs or the slugging percentage. It's that he's whiffed only five times in 34 plate appearances; a potentially major development for a fellow who averaged 146 punchouts a year over the past three seasons. But can he keep that up? Nobody had our panel more confused than this man.

The positive: "I always felt that he was going to be a special player," one longtime scout said. "He has shown the same tools that I remember seeing, and should be on his way to a big year and, hopefully, a fine career."

The negative: "He's an absolute toolbox," another scout said. "Based on skills -- age, power, athleticism -- he's for real. But I'll be very curious to see how he reacts when people stop throwing him fastballs. There's always been something missing, to me. Too much swinging and missing. Not enough adjusting. So it may take some time with this guy."

Vladimir Guerrero
Guerrero

Vladimir Guerrero (Rangers) -- Projected pace: .424 average, 20 HRs, .457 OBP, .545 SLG
RATING: NOT SO REAL

The Man from Vlad has already had as many multihit games (five) in the first week and a half this year as he had in April and May combined last year. But look beyond the average and you find just two extra-base hits. So, sadly, we couldn't find anyone who thought he was back, hot start or no hot start.

"Every year, he looks stiffer and stiffer," one scout said. "He moves around like he's 90."

Then, just out of respect for all this man has been and all he's done, the same scout added: "I hope I'm wrong."

We have to admit we heard that sentiment from just about everyone. We share it. But here at Rumblings, our job isn't to get sentimental. Our job is to separate reality from illusion. And that mission has now been officially accomplished.

Ready to rumble

Pen pals: Three months from now, you could have a stampede of teams looking for bullpen help. And given all the injured closers already on the disabled list (Joe Nathan, Huston Street, Brad Lidge, Kerry Wood, Andrew Bailey, Mike Gonzalez), you could envision as many as a half-dozen teams shopping for closer upgrades. We wish them luck. Early returns on the potential July relief-pitcher market aren't too uplifting. Heath Bell? "Remember," said an executive of one contender, "he's signed [through 2011], so he's not a rental. And he's making no money ($4 million this year, arbitration-eligible next year). So their only impetus to move him is if they get knocked off their feet. But even if they get knocked off their feet, they've got a lot of young pitching there. So it might be a bigger impetus to want to win every game you can when you've got a chance to win."

Kerry Wood? "Who knows if he'll be healthy?" said the same exec. "And the Indians will have to eat a lot of that contract [$10.5 million this year]."

So what about the rest of the rent-a-closer field: Chad Qualls, Jason Frasor, Matt Capps, Octavio Dotel, Kevin Gregg, possibly Frank Francisco? Though Frasor has his fans, he's already lost his closer job in Toronto. Which is why another exec said: "Qualls is the only guy who would really interest me. It's just not a real attractive list. To me, Bell is the only legit closer out there who might be available. And I'm not even sure he'll really be available, or affordable."

Joe Nathan
Nathan
Twin peeks: We've heard from two league sources that the Twins have an insurance policy on Nathan's contract that figures to reimburse them a "significant" chunk of the $11.25 million their closer has coming this season. So that's more than enough money to allow them to chase a closer at the trading deadline if they think they need one.

But even though Nathan figures to be ready for next year, one GM says he wouldn't be looking strictly for a rent-a-closer if he were in the Twins' shoes.

"In my experience, it takes 16 months to get right after Tommy John," he said. "Yeah, in a year he'll be throwing. And he should probably be pitching. But he might not be the same for 16 months. So if you're going to make a deal in July, you'd be better off with a guy like Heath Bell, because he can get you through two years if you need him to, and he can set up for a year if you need him to do that."

There's actually another good reason the Twins wouldn't be likely to deal for a rent-a-reliever. Rauch and two of their prime setup men, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, can all be free agents after this season. So a rental would force them to replace four bullpen pieces next winter in a thin market.

So if they make a trade, it might not be a traditional kind of deadline deal. Other potentially available closers this July who would be under contract through 2011: Francisco Cordero, Gonzalez and Wood (if he vests his 2011 option by finishing 55 games this year).

Houston Astros Hello, Houston: It didn't take long. The buzzards already are homing in on Houston, where a disastrous start has other teams wondering whether the Astros could get sufficiently fed up to start marketing Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and/or Carlos Lee by midseason.

Well, you can just about forget Lee and Berkman, who have full no-trades they've never shown any interest in waiving. But Oswalt could be a different story.

The ace also has a total no-trade clause, but he has told the Astros in the past he would at least think about dropping it if it meant moving to the right team in the right circumstances. So what's the right team?

One old friend of Oswalt believes his three preferred destinations would be Atlanta, St. Louis or Texas. ("Those are the three teams he's talked about if it ever gets to that point," the friend said.)

But despite his preference to stay in the National League and pitch in the South or Midwest, the friend said he could also see Oswalt agreeing to go someplace where he could slot into a deep rotation, as opposed to a team where he'd be viewed as The Savior. Could that bring clubs like the Dodgers or Angels into the mix? Possibly. But it's way too early to play that game.

The dollar signs in this picture are this: Oswalt makes $15 million this year and $16 million next year, with a $16 million club option for 2012 that he can opt out of (for a $1 million buyout) if the urge strikes him. He can veto all deals through the life of the contract.

Aaron Harang
Harang
Head start: If we keep Oswalt out of this conversation, here is one GM's nominee for the starting pitcher most likely to get traded in July if his club is out of the race: Aaron Harang.

Not only is Harang making $12.5 million in the last guaranteed year of his current contract, but the Reds would be on the hook for another $2 million to buy out his 2011 option year (which inflates to $14 million, with a $2.5 million buyout, if he's traded).

"So if they're out of it," the GM said, "there would be tremendous motivation for [GM Walt Jocketty] to find somebody who will take Harang and pay the buyout."

Adam Dunn
Dunn
Who Dunn it: If we had to take a guess, we'd guess the Nationals would be more likely to trade Adam Dunn before the deadline than negotiate an extension. But Dunn has made no secret of the fact he likes it in Washington and would love to stick around.

"If I was in charge," he told Rumblings recently, "I'd have signed me for 10 years by now."

Of course, if Adam Dunn was in charge, it would be a different world in many ways. Wouldn't it?

"Yeah, if I was in charge that would be big pressure," Dunn quipped. "I'd probably lower taxes significantly -- especially on athletes."

Wilson Ramos
Ramos
Catch-ing up: In last week's Rumblings, we speculated that highly regarded Twins catching prospect Wilson Ramos could become a prime trading chip now that he's blocked for nearly a decade by some guy named Joe Mauer.

But teams that have already kicked the tires on Ramos have been told he's not available -- and that the Twins have a hard time envisioning any scenario, other than a major deal, in which they'd ever make him available.

Assistant GM Rob Antony echoed those sentiments, telling Rumblings: "I think he still has a future with us. No. 1, we're going to want to give Joe some breaks. And the ideal situation is if you don't have a huge dropoff [from the starter to his backup]. And if he performs like we think he can perform, we can find ways to play him. We can DH him some. We can DH Joe. We can do some different things to get both of them playing time. So could he become a big chip for us? I guess he could. But right now, we'd lean toward keeping him."

Jimmy Rollins
Rollins
Time for a re-Phil: Losing Jimmy Rollins for up to a month will be a test for a Phillies team that had six regulars play 150-plus games last season. But you'd never know it to listen to them. This is now one of the most confident groups in sports. So even losing one of their most important players in a freak injury doesn't seem to have shaken them at all.

"This team has been through a lot," Jayson Werth said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs over the past three or four years. We're a resilient club. We've come from behind. We've been down. We've been out. We've been written off. We've been there, done all that. None of it really seems to affect us. We know who we are. We know what we've got. We know how to play the game.

"In '07, Chase [Utley] went down. He broke his hand. … That didn't seem to faze us. [Ryan Howard] got sick last year. He was in the hospital. Broke his [iron-man] streak. That didn't seem to bother us, either. So no. We're a team. Baseball's not an individual sport. We don't live and die by the playing of one guy. It's a collective group effort, through and through. I think that attitude and that ability we have to do that -- I think that separates us."

Then again, this has still been an incredibly healthy team these past three years. In 2008, none of the Phillies' starting pitchers missed a start because of injury, and their regulars (minus the catcher) averaged 147 games played. In 2009, their lineup stayed so healthy, they didn't have a single bench player reach 155 at-bats.

So if this is just one key player missing a couple of weeks, this is a team talented enough to play over it. If it's a sign their amazingly good health luck is beginning to turn, it won't be quite so easy for them to keep the faith.

Ryan Howard
Howard
The life of Ryan: No hitter in baseball has been more susceptible to The Shift the past few years than Ryan Howard. But Howard has driven so many balls to the left side since the spring -- including an RBI single right through the vacant shortstop hole Monday -- that one scout tells Rumblings that Howard might not have to worry about that shift much longer.

"When teams start seeing this guy's spray chart, they'd be smart not to [shift anymore]," the scout said. "He's a different hitter right now. He's much more content to let the ball travel and use another side of the field. In the past, you could beat him in early, and really get him cheating. And that made him very vulnerable to those curveballs and changeups away. But now you can't do that, because he won't go out and chase those balls. Just a different hitter in every way."

Kevin Millar
Millar
Latter-day saint? One of Rumblings' favorite people, the always-upbeat Kevin Millar, is still looking for big league work after being unexpectedly released by the Cubs in the final days of spring training. And it's still hard to fathom that Millar can't be a productive, grind-it-out bat off the bench for somebody.

But if nothing develops, Millar is mulling a return engagement with the team with which he started his pro career -- the St. Paul Saints, of Northern League fame.

"You know, I started in St. Paul in 1993," said Millar, who hit .242 but had a .404 on-base percentage this spring. "So I called [Saints majority owner] Marvin Goldklang. And we talked about maybe going up there to finish up where I started. You know, the tough part is, the way it ended with the Cubs, I have no closure. I pinch-hit and pop up on a Monday. The next day I get released. And it means I have no closure.

"So who knows? Maybe I go to St. Paul in May and have fun with the situation. If something happens [with a big league team], great. If not, I remember Leon Durham playing with my team in '93, and it was huge because he played in the major leagues. So now maybe I'll go there and experience that in reverse.

"I'd love to still play [in the big leagues]. But if nothing happens and it ends here, well, hey, it's been a wonderful ride."

Our favorite Millar quote of all time? After his 2007 Orioles team lost a 30-3 game to the Rangers, Millar told us that even an inspirational force such as himself wasn't too sure what to say in his dugout before his team went up to hit in the bottom of the ninth -- down by a mere 27 runs.

"I mean, what do you say?" Millar wondered. "Do you say, 'OK, guys, let's hit four grand slams -- and we'll only be losing by 11?'"

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, let's check in with some of America's finest scouting minds:

• On Chris Carpenter: "His next outing, it will be very interesting to watch his velocity, because he's just not throwing very hard. Everything is 89-90 mph, it's flat, and he can't locate it. He's always been a guy who could reach back and get a little extra velocity when he needed it. But his last time out [Sunday against Milwaukee], he just couldn't do it."

• On Brandon Wood: "He's been awful. He has a swing like a sword-fighter."

• On Mike Leake: "I thought he was more advanced than [Aroldis] Chapman from Day 1 [of spring training]. Excellent mound presence. Looks like he has a game plan. Advanced approach to pitching for a guy his age."

• On Cole Hamels: "I think he's become cutter-crazy and forgotten what makes him good. He's good when he's using his curveball to change people's eye level, but now, when he's throwing that high cutter, nothing is moving their eyes. To me, he has to be an up-and-down-the-ladder guy. He needs to go up and down the ladder with fastball-curve-changeup and then just show that cutter as a pitch to get in on a right-hander's hands. But he's hardly even using his curveball. If he's going to use a fastball/cutter/change mix, he's a No. 3 starter. If he's a fastball/curve/change guy, he's a No. 2 or a No. 1."

Quotes of the week

• From Mariners quipster Ken Griffey Jr. (to The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune's Larry LaRue) on that infamous Milton Bradley gesture to all his fans in Texas: "He was just signaling, 'One more out.'"

• From Rays manager Joe Maddon (to the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin) on the Yankees' complaints about the train wreck known as Tropicana Field: "Tell them we're trying to get a new yard ourselves. If they want to contribute in any way, we'll take it. … We'll take all kinds of donations. Any major league team that wants to contribute to the new ballpark, we'd be happy to accept."

• From Twins outfielder Denard Span (to our pal Jim Caple), on the astonishingly good home-opener weather at Target Field: "I had my ninja outfit ready, ready to go out in cold-weather gear. I don't know, there must have been a whole lot of Minnesotans praying for good weather."

• And, finally, from Phillies coach Pete Mackanin: "I never use a big word when a diminutive word would suffice."

Tweet of the week

From the always-amusing @sportspickle:

"Royals Let Kid Who Threw Opening Pitch Stay in for Rest of Game"

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in from the witticists at realfakesports.com:

YANKEES FEAR MAUER EXTENSION COULD PREVENT HIM FROM PLAYING FOR YANKEES

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.