Wednesday, April 28, 2010
DH a problem spot for a number of clubs
By Jerry Crasnick
If Jermaine Dye is monitoring the American League designated hitter statistics even a little bit, a small voice inside him must be saying, "I'm unemployed because of this?"
A few lucky teams have no reason to quibble with their DH production in April. Jose Guillen of the Kansas City Royals looks like a new man in his free-agent walk year; Hideki Matsui is giving the Los Angeles Angels lots of professional at-bats in the cleanup spot; and Vladimir Guerrero of the Texas Rangers is hitting for a nice average, if not a lot of power. And the Toronto Blue Jays' Adam Lind, a designated hitter pup at age 26, is showing the same skill set that won him a Silver Slugger Award in 2009.
But for numerous clubs, the DH spot has been an offensive wasteland in the first month. As ESPN stats maven Jeremy Lundblad points out:
• The Boston Red Sox's designated hitters have driven in seven runs and grounded into five double plays.
• The Seattle Mariners have 16 total bases from the DH spot. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus generated 11 total bases in one game last week.
• Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers have 12 hits this season. The Minnesota Twins have 13 hits from the DH spot.
In this "Where have you gone, Ron Blomberg?" edition of Starting 9, we take a look at nine designated hitters or DH combos that can't wait for April to end. The phrase "small sample size" definitely applies, but they're all hoping to rev it up -- and soon.
David Ortiz, Red Sox (.154 BA, 19 strikeouts in 52 ABs)
The Red Sox people see no discernible difference in the Ortiz of this spring and the Big Papi of 2009, who got off to an alarmingly bad start before recovering to hit 28 homers and drive in 99 runs. Ortiz led the American League with 27 homers after June 6.
Here are the two big distinctions: (1) The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are a combined 27-12 and show no signs of letting up, so Red Sox manager Terry Francona doesn't have the luxury of being patient; and (2) Boston has some roster alternatives that are looking more preferable by the day.
Mike Lowell pinch hit for Ortiz in a 7-6 win over Texas last week, then started four games in five nights against lefties Matt Harrison, C.J. Wilson, Brian Matusz and Dana Eveland. Can you say "platoon"? The Red Sox also have the option of giving more DH time to Victor Martinez, who has thrown out one of 27 base stealers this season, and handing over some catching at-bats to Jason Varitek, who looks revitalized at the plate.
Ortiz is seeing a whopping 4.71 pitches per plate appearance, so he's still trying to work counts. The Red Sox would like to see him be a little less pull-conscious. But if he does start looking for soft stuff away and trying to flick it off and over the Green Monster, he'll be even more susceptible to hard stuff on the fists. Regardless of his approach, a slower bat leaves him with less margin for error.
Ortiz has kept plugging away since his opening week media meltdown, and Francona is doing his best to balance loyalty, reality and a long-term view. Maybe Ortiz can beat up on enough mediocre pitching to post representative numbers in the end. But as one AL executive observes, "One of these years, he's not going to come back." Could this be the year?
Travis Hafner, Indians (.197 BA, .328 slugging pct.)
In spring training, Indians manager Manny Acta expressed confidence that Hafner was ready to let it fly and have a big year now that his October 2008 shoulder surgery was even further in the past. It's tough to make that case in April. Hafner reached base in each of his first 16 games, but he's striking out a lot and failing to hit the ball with much authority.
With Hafner and Grady Sizemore off to slow starts, it's no surprise that Cleveland ranks at or near the bottom of the AL in most major offensive categories. The Indians have wasted some encouraging outings from starters Fausto Carmona, David Huff and Mitch Talbot.
According to FanGraphs.com, Hafner is swinging at 28.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this season. He was between 15 and 19 percent from 2004 through 2007, when he averaged 32 homers and 108 RBIs per year as Cleveland's middle-of-the-order anchor.
Hafner's lack of selectivity is in part a function of declining bat speed. He has to start his swing earlier, so he doesn't have the luxury of eyeballing pitches all the way to the catcher's mitt. If Hafner's shoulder problems have sapped some life from his bat, it's a worrisome development, given that the Indians owe him $11.5 million this year and $13 million in 2012 and in 2013.
"The only way he's going to get to the good fastball is to cheat and try to get out front quicker," one AL scout said. "If he's cheating to get to the fastball, that makes him even more vulnerable to the off-speed stuff. I think his whole game is turned upside down."
The designated hitter spot has been troublesome for Seattle since Edgar Martinez retired in 2004 and immersed himself in running the family's embroidery business. Raul Ibanez gave the Mariners a productive season at DH. But Carl Everett, Ben Broussard and Jose Vidro helped pave former GM Bill Bavasi's way out of town, and Griffey and the Mariners' 2009 designated hitter contingent ranked 11th in the league with a .747 OPS.
Griffey, Mike Sweeney and Milton Bradley have combined for one extra-base hit (a double) in 77 at-bats in the DH spot this season. Nevertheless, GM Jack Zduriencik is preaching patience.
"When anything continues for any length of time, you have to be concerned," Zduriencik said. "But in the first few weeks of the season, you just have to let guys play. Just because someone has had a couple of bad games or a couple of bad weeks, I don't think you panic."
Griffey has been tinkering with his swing to better incorporate his legs, but the early results aren't encouraging. His walk rate is down, and his contact percentage (76.2) is the lowest it's been since an injury-marred 2003 season with the Cincinnati Reds.
"You can pound him with the fastball in, and he has to look for that because otherwise he can't get the bat head out there," one AL scout said. "Once he's out front, he's more vulnerable to the change of speeds. You can get him out in more ways now."
Nick Johnson, Yankees (7-for-48, .146 at DH)
Since 2002, Johnson has been on the disabled list with a fractured hand, a fractured cheekbone, injuries to his wrist and heel, a broken femur, and a strained hamstring. Some guys are known for their durability, but Johnson could get hurt playing cards in the clubhouse.
The Yankees did Johnson and his body a favor by signing him to be their DH, but he already has missed time with a bruised knee and a sore back. Worse yet, he has a total of seven hits -- one more than Arizona pitcher Dan Haren.
That said, Johnson is giving the Yankees the patient at-bats they envisioned when they signed him to a one-year, $5.5 million contract. He leads the team with 18 walks, and he gave the Yankees a glimpse of what was coming in the season-opening series against Boston. Johnson failed to hit safely in three games, but he coaxed 66 pitches and five walks out of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey and the Red Sox bullpen. Umpire Joe West didn't enjoy the show, but the Yankees had no complaints.
"He may be a click off with his swing and his timing, but I think he'll still produce," one AL assistant GM said. "Even if it's a relatively empty on-base percentage -- in the high .300s without power -- he sees a lot of pitches. There's an exponential benefit in that lineup. Pitchers are working hard to get him out, and they're not getting a breather anywhere else."
Pat Burrell, Rays (.231 BA, 0-for-12 vs. lefties)
Burrell was rated the 34th-best defensive left fielder in baseball in the Fielding Bible rankings each year from 2006 through 2008, but he has always had a hard time embracing the designated hitter role. In his days with the Philadelphia Phillies, Burrell hit .153 (13-for-85) with 27 strikeouts in assorted DH cameos.
The Rays signed Burrell to a two-year, $16 million contract, and the return was underwhelming in 2009. Burrell slugged .367 and never really found his niche.
"The transition to the DH spot was tough for him," said Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations. "It's definitely an adjustment for some guys, and he also had to adjust to a new league. Going through it the second time, I think Pat feels a lot more comfortable than he did last year."
Burrell hit a two-run, 12th-inning homer to give the Rays a dramatic win over Boston, but he has a .305 OBP and substantial plate coverage issues. One scout observed that Burrell's swing has gotten both longer and slower in recent years. That's a toxic combination for a hitter.
The Rays are so deep and versatile offensively that they lead the AL in runs despite a nonproducing DH. If there comes a point when they decide it's best to cut ties with Burrell, they'll have guys lining up for his at-bats.
Willy Aybar continues to show pop in limited appearances. Dan Johnson hit eight homers in his first 16 games with Triple-A Durham, and Hank Blalock is plugging away in the International League in hopes of a call-up. And as Rays beat reporter Marc Topkin recently noted, new special assistant Rocco Baldelli is taking batting practice regularly at Tropicana Field and has yet to get baseball completely out of his system.
Jason Kubel, Twins (4-for-35, .114 at DH)
Kubel provides the least cause for concern of any player on this list. He's only 27 years old, and he made major strides across the board last season with 28 homers, 103 RBIs and a .907 OPS. He led the Twins with four home runs in spring training, and he's healthy, so that's not an issue.
A little luck would help. Kubel has a .195 batting average on balls in play, and there's no earthly way that can continue.
"I think it's more of a mental issue for Jason," Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. "He is hard on himself, and I think he just needs to relax. He had a very good spring camp and looked locked in. I'm sure he wants to back up last season and is really pressing. He has hit some balls hard but right at people. It's nothing a few good games won't cure."
The Twins are getting some nice early production from Jim Thome, who has three homers and three doubles in his first 35 at-bats. Delmon Young has slipped after a strong start, and manager Ron Gardenhire has the option of using Thome at DH against right-handers and playing Kubel in left field in place of Young.
The White Sox's DH contingent (.208 BA, .628 OPS)
Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen wanted to be more flexible with the DH spot this season rather than be locked into giving 500-plus at-bats to one lumbering, fading slugger. (Sorry about that, Mr. Thome).
The Sox certainly don't lack for variety. Just three weeks into the season, they already have used seven players at designated hitter. Compare that to 2008, when Guillen used five players at DH in 162 games.
Although the numbers aren't pretty, they're a bit deceptive. The White Sox signed Andruw Jones for a base salary of $500,000 with the idea that he would spend a lot of time at DH. Then Jones arrived at spring training 20 pounds lighter and looked spry enough in the outfield to persuade Guillen to play Juan Pierre and Carlos Quentin more at DH. Jones is slugging .667 and already has six home runs.
"He's not going to be the 10-consecutive-Gold Glove, 50-home-run guy again," one AL executive said. "But his conditioning is different, his approach to what he's trying to accomplish is different, and the bat speed looks similar to what it was. The question is whether this is something he can make last six months."
Guillen is convinced that several of his regulars will be fresher in August and September if they get an occasional DH day in April and May. That's particularly true of Quentin, who missed 63 games in 2009 with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
Scott has exceptional power, some holes in his swing and a penchant for streakiness. He was so torrid in May 2009, with a 1.479 OPS, he nearly overshadowed catcher Matt Wieters' arrival from the minors. Then Scott quietly faded from view, hitting .208 after the All-Star break.
Reimold showed big-time power in his rookie year, but underwent surgery on his Achilles tendon in September and is still rounding into form after a reduced workload in spring training.
Don't expect any changes here, if only because injuries and a lack of depth have limited manager Dave Trembley's options. Felix Pie is out with a back injury, and Ty Wigginton is playing second base while Brian Roberts is on the disabled list.
In the overall scheme of things, a lack of DH production ranks well down the list of Trembley's problems. Baltimore's bullpen is a nightly adventure, and the Orioles are last in the league in runs scored. All-Star center fielder Adam Jones is off to a terrible start, and the Orioles are hitting .199 with runners in scoring position.
Eric Chavez and Jake Fox, Athletics
Chavez, in the final year of a six-year, $66 million contract, has a history of back trouble and has Kevin Kouzmanoff blocking him at third base in Oakland's new pitching-and-defense-first alignment. He worked out hard all winter, arrived at spring training 10 pounds lighter and played the role of good soldier in making the transition to DH and occasional first-base option. But he has a .624 OPS in 16 games, and the good days have been fleeting.
Chavez is still only 32 years old, and he was more athletic at his peak than most players on this list. If he can experience such a deep and pronounced slide because of injuries and age, it goes extra for Ortiz, Hafner, Guerrero and some of the AL's other primary DHs. They are walking cautionary tales -- although that didn't prevent the Phillies from investing $125 million in Ryan Howard.
"You look at guys like Hafner and Chavez, and there's more stiffness to their actions, more stiffness to their swings," said an AL front-office man. "With some of these guys, you say, 'I'm not sure if they're going to be able to get the engine started again.'"
(.211, one homer in 76 ABs)
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.