- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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When Buster Posey is hitting .233 two weeks into the season, we say: "It's early."
When Josh Hamilton is hitting .200 two weeks into the season, we say: "It's trouble."
Why is that, anyway?
Well, thanks for asking. As we believe Sigmund Freud -- or possibly Joaquin Andujar -- once observed, "In life, we worry about some things more than other things. It's who we are. It's why we don't bet heavily on, say, the Mariners."
So the point is: It's way too soon to know exactly which slow starts are worrisome and which are just small samples run amok. But that's what we're here for -- to rummage through the slow starters out there and tell you where they rank on our handy-dandy Baseball Worry Meter.
Ready? Here goes. It's time for the mid-April edition of our Worry Watch (ratings on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most worrisome):
Teams in trouble
Reasons to worry about the Blue Jays: Where do we start? How about with a rotation that has a 5.77 ERA, 28th in the big leagues? Or maybe with an unsettled bullpen that has already jettisoned three relievers who made the Opening Day roster. Not to mention rough starts by the big boppers, Jose Bautista (.200/.282/.486) and Edwin Encarnacion (.208/.300/.358). And now a crushing ankle injury to Jose Reyes that will shut him down until July. So this definitely wasn't the start the Blue Jays would have scripted.
On the other hand: Let's remember that despite all those unhappy developments, the Jays are still just two games under .500 (6-8) and 3½ games out of first place. The track record of their starters says they will pitch a lot better than this. And Bautista and Encarnacion won't forget how to make home run trots if they're healthy.
Blue Jays Worry Meter: This is still a really talented group, but losing Reyes for three months is about as devastating an April injury as any team could suffer. He wasn't just the Jays' energizer, he leaves them with no proven replacement at short. And his absence could trigger troublesome ripple effects all over the field: Bautista to third base, Brett Lawrie to second base, Emilio Bonifacio to right field, an untested Munenori Kawasaki to short. "And all of sudden," said a scout, "you look up and you have a number of guys at positions where you weren't planning to play them."
Reasons to worry about the Angels: Hamilton (.200) is barely keeping his average around the Mendoza Line and is still swinging at more nonstrikes (46 percent) than just about any hitter in baseball. Albert Pujols (knee, heel) is limping. The left side of their infield (Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo) has been hurting. There are bullpen questions. And now the Angels have to survive for another month and a half without Jered Weaver, leaving behind a rotation that has a messy 5.72 ERA, with opponents hitting .291/.359/.537 for an .896 opponent OPS that ranks last in baseball. Is that enough issues for you?
On the other hand: This still shapes up as one of the great lineups on Planet Earth despite what we've seen so far. You really think this team is going to hit .129 with men in scoring position all year? We'll take the over!
Angels Worry Meter: And this meter would have been at "8," said one scout, if the Angels hadn't abracadabra'd a semi-miraculous, series-salvaging, walk-off win against the Astros last Saturday, then won again Sunday. Remember, the Angels are coming off a spring in which they had the worst record (10-20) in baseball. And now their pitching troubles aren't allowing them to hit the reset button. Weaver's absence feels like the biggest issue, except for one thing: Scouts who covered the Angels didn't like their rotation even with Weaver, whose fastball velocity was down to the low-to-mid 80s before he got hurt. We asked one scout if he saw the makings of a win-the-World Series pitching staff once Weaver returns. His succinct answer: "I don't think it's there."
Reasons to worry about the Rays: This isn't complicated. To reach October, you need to hit. And you need to score. At least a little bit. Well, have you checked out this juggernaut's lineup card lately? On Tuesday, six of the nine starting position players were hitting .200 or worse. On Sunday, Joe Maddon pinch-hit for his cleanup hitter with a guy (Shelley Duncan) who was batting .192.
This team just went 217 consecutive at-bats over seven games without hitting a home run. It has scored precisely five runs all season during the first three innings. And it's zero for the year with both the bases loaded (0-for-11) and runners on third with fewer than two outs (0-for-18). Get the picture?
On the other hand: They're going to pitch. Right? Matt Moore and the underrated Alex Cobb have allowed a total of three earned runs in their four starts. No reason to think David Price and Jeremy Hellickson won't get it going. Wil Myers is bound to ride to the offense's rescue one of these months. And as one scout reminded us, this formula (Pitch it? Yep. Catch it? Yep. Hit it? Whatever.) "has always been their M.O."
Rays Worry Meter: With any other club, the meter would spike higher. "But I don't think they ever panic," one scout said of the Rays. Nevertheless, "they're not going to score," said another longtime scout. "They don't have enough offense."
Reasons to worry about the Tigers: Detroit's bullpen is now 0-3 with a 5.31 ERA and more blown saves (three) than saves (two). It's also currently playing everyone's favorite game: Who's The Closer?
Tigers Bullpen Worry Meter: "In that division, they'll be fine with what they have right now," said one scout. "With a team like that, you don't need a lights-out guy to get you through the season. You need one in the playoffs. So they'll be fine. If they need to go get somebody [in July], they'll go get somebody."
Reasons to worry about the Cardinals: Without all their blown saves (four in six chances), St. Louis would have the second-best record in baseball. What makes this worrisome is that one of the best closers in the biz, Jason Motte, looks as if he's heading for Tommy John surgery, and his replacement, Mitchell Boggs, has allowed 16 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings.
Cardinals Bullpen Worry Meter: "I'm sure the manager isn't feeling real good, because there's no light at the end of the tunnel," said one NL scout. "But they've got so many good arms. They've still got Trevor Rosenthal throwing 100 [mph]. There's really no reason for them to panic -- not yet."
Cy Young Corner
Roy Halladay: Well, he did cut his ERA from 14.73 to 7.63 with his outing Sunday against the offensively challenged Marlins. But before anyone announces, "He's back," you should know Halladay got only two strikeouts in that game and just five swings and misses -- none on his once-devastating fastball.
Halladay Worry Meter: "If the Marlins had beaten him, it would have been about a 12," said one scout. "He was better in that game. But what I see is still see a guy who will beat bad teams with undisciplined hitters who chase balls out of the zone. But guys with good pitch recognition won't chase that stuff. I just don't see him beating a lot of good lineups." We'll find out fast. Halladay faces the Cardinals on Friday.
Tim Lincecum: Amazingly, the Giants have won all three of Lincecum's starts, even though he walked seven hitters in one of them, gave up five runs in the second inning in another and allowed four in the first inning in the third. Biggest worry: Lincecum's walk rate (12 in 16 IP) is at a career high -- and the rate of hitters chasing nonstrikes (23.6 percent) is at an all-time low, according to FanGraphs.
Lincecum Worry Meter: "They've just had to switch [their worries] around," said one scout with a laugh. "They used to worry about [Barry] Zito. Now they worry about Lincecum." In truth, the shrinking gap between Lincecum's fastball and changeup has made it easier for hitters to lay off those changeups in the dirt. And when he throws the change in the strike zone, "it used to be a swing and miss," said one scout. "Now they barrel it up."
Josh Hamilton: Now that he's got a couple of homers and his stormy trip to Texas out of the way, life is looking up for Hamilton. Yet he continues to swing and miss at a higher rate than all but the biggest miss-a-holics in the sport (Pedro Alvarez, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Howard, Mark Reynolds, etc.). Meanwhile, the only hitters in baseball chasing more pitches outside the strike zone are Alexei Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
Hamilton Worry Meter: "He'll be OK," said one scout. "He's in the same mode as Pujols was early last year, trying to prove he's worth the money when the fact is that nobody's worth that money. He'll be fine. To be honest, if I were them, I'd be more worried about the next nine years with Pujols. He can't move at all."
Russell Martin: Was it a red flag when the Yankees allowed Martin to sign with the Pirates, even though he wanted to go back to the Bronx? He's off to a grim 3-for-35 (.086) start at the plate and has thrown out just two of 10 base-stealers.
Martin Worry Meter: Martin's batting average has dropped five straight years. His on-base percentage has declined in four straight. So as much as everyone admires his leadership qualities, "he's a guy who responds to the limelight," said one scout, "I just don't think that whole environment [in Pittsburgh] is good for him. He needs a bigger stage."
Shin-Soo Choo: This has nothing to do with Choo's offense. He has been exactly the kind of count-grinding on-base machine the Reds thought they were trading for (.333/.463/.556) in the leadoff hole. The concerns are over whether he can handle center field. And he has done nothing to allay that trepidation with two errors and a series of uncertain decisions.
Choo Worry Meter: The Reds went into this season prepared to live with Choo's defensive limitations, as he reacquainted himself with a position he hadn't played regularly in 11 years. So there are no signs they're sweating this -- yet. "What he adds on offense far outweighs what he might give up on defense," said one scout.
B.J. Upton: Everything's been beautiful in Atlanta, if you don't mind overlooking the fact that the new center fielder is 7-for-46 (.152), with 14 whiffs. Of course, luckily, Upton has five guaranteed years' worth of time to straighten that out.
Upton Worry Meter: For one thing, unlike his sweet-swinging brother, Justin, B.J. is switching leagues. Which is still tougher than it might look. For another thing, quipped one NL scout, "I don't think there's any concern -- because he's keeping his brother company, and his brother is tearing it up."
Stars with issues
Ryan Zimmerman: He's hitting only .245/.333/.388. But the worrywarts aren't sweating Zimmerman's offense. What the world worries about is just one thing: Can this man throw a baseball across the diamond without alerting air traffic control? Over the past six seasons, 59 of Zimmerman's 79 errors at third have been throwing errors -- including all four this season, despite offseason shoulder surgery. And his two airmailed E-5s over the weekend cost the Nationals four unearned runs -- and, arguably, two big games against the Braves.
Zimmerman Worry Meter: "He's still got great hands and feet, but his throwing is so ugly, it's almost unwatchable," said one scout. "It's almost like that commercial with the guy trying to teach his kid to throw and one throw is uglier than the next. It's a real issue." And it's a bigger issue because the Nationals can't move Zimmerman to first until at least midseason. They just re-signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal, meaning he can't be traded without permission until after June 15.
Matt Kemp: Kemp might have had the greatest April of all time last year (.417/.490/.893,12 HR). But a year later, he has started out 10-for-54 (.185), with no homers, three walks and 17 strikeouts. Most tellingly, he's now 0-for-16 on pitches below the waist and 0-for-14 on pitches low and away.
Kemp Worry Meter: Scouts who have followed Kemp wonder if he has ever gotten completely healthy after his shoulder and hamstring troubles. "He doesn't look like he can lock in and hit off his front side," said one observer. But the Dodgers keep saying his issues have nothing to do with health. They have to do with a guy who is so mechanically out of whack, he's flying open too quickly and can't reach anything on the outer half of the plate. If he's truly healthy, at least that is fixable.
Giancarlo Stanton: It has been almost a week since Stanton played, thanks to a sore shoulder. But when he was out there, he was having a tough time enduring what one scout called "the Barry Bonds treatment" -- except with one big difference: Even Bonds got more strikes to hit than this guy. (Just 29.8 percent of the pitches Stanton has seen this year were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.) So no wonder that when he has decided to take a few hacks, he has gone 5-for-30 with 12 strikeouts and no homers.
Stanton Worry Meter: The worry isn't whether Stanton will hit. The worry is whether he'll keep his sanity, on a team that's 2-11 and, before its eight-run eruption Tuesday, had scored fewer runs in its first 12 games (23) than all but one NL team in the live-ball era. "He's upset, and I don't blame him," said one scout. "But I don't know what choice he's got. He's not going to see many strikes. But you know what? For years, nobody threw Barry Bonds a strike, and he still found a way. So that's what this guy has to do. When he gets a strike, he has to find a way."
Small sample or sign of trouble? A closer look at some teams and players off to worrisome starts.