- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The magic number is 30 -- as in 30 games. That magic number is about to hit home.
In football, 30 games can practically define a career. In baseball, 30 games merely get the furniture in place for the big party to come.
Just suppose last year's baseball season had ended after 30 games, for instance. The team that won the World Series (the San Francisco Giants) would have had the same record as the Miami Marlins. The Cleveland Indians and New York Mets would have made the playoffs. You can look it up.
But then, as you might have astutely noticed, the season kept going. And several things changed. As they no doubt will this year. So just warning you.
Why do we bring this up now? Because this weekend, almost every team in baseball will hit the 30-game mark. So yes, there's a long, long, lonnnng way to go. But what have we learned from those first 30 games or so? Here's what:
The Angels are in trouble
They're pretty close to being in the same position they were at this point last season r (7 games out of first instead of 6.5). But here's the difference: P-I-T-C-H-I-N-G. The Angels are 29th in the major leagues in ERA (4.84). And one big, Zack Greinke-esque trade wouldn't be enough to fix them this year. "I don't know how they get back into this," said one executive. "They just give up too many runs."
The Rangers are better than we thought
OK, everybody who thought this team would lead the American League in ERA -- especially after losing two starters (Matt Harrison and Martin Perez) before the season was a week old -- raise your hands. Aha. Thought so. But the Rangers are now 6-2 when their two rookies, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch, start. They've gotten tremendous bullpen work from Tanner Scheppers (12 appearances, 1 ER). And they've reminded us again how deep they are in every facet. "Every year," said one AL exec, "as we get further away from the effect of PEDs, the impact of young players and young arms becomes more relevant. And the 23-, 24-year-old pitchers they've called up from their system have pitched really well."
The Blue Jays are in trouble
It obviously wasn't out of the question that this team wouldn't be as good as it looked on the drawing board. But yikes. Did anyone see the Blue Jays becoming the first AL team to fall 10 games out in the loss column? And they've earned that lowly place in the standings. The offense is next-to-last in the AL in on-base percentage. The pitching staff is 28th in the big leagues in ERA. Only one team in the AL has committed more errors. And the only way they seem to score is on a long ball (51 of their 106 runs have come via a homer). We took a quick poll of scouts and executives the other day to ask which big spender -- the Angels, Blue Jays or Dodgers -- had the best chance to contend. Nobody took the Blue Jays. "Too many questions," said one AL exec. "Shortstop. Defense behind the plate. Homer-happy offense. Inconsistent starters. Shaky pen. Second base. Anything else?"
No team spent its money better than the Red Sox
But there's one big offseason spender everyone seems to forget -- the Red Sox. They committed $126.45 million to seven free agents who were perceived to be on the decline. But while the world scoffed, those signings have transformed the face of their team in many ways. And Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Shane Victorino (before his back issues) have all gotten off to excellent starts. "This is a really good example," said one exec, "of how players can rebound from down years. If you pick out guys who have performed at a certain level over the course of their careers, they can get back to that level of performance if you put them in the right place at the right time. And they're better buys."
No team made a better trade than the Braves
Every general manager dreams of making a trade like this: Justin Upton and Chris Johnson for Martin Prado and four guys you won't currently find in the big leagues. It looked good and felt good the day Braves GM Frank Wren made it. Imagine how good it feels today, with Upton leading the league in home runs and slugging, Johnson leading the league in hitting and the Braves bopping along with the best record in the National League. Of course, the season won't end today. Johnson probably shouldn't save space on his shelf for that batting title trophy. And Upton won't hit 12 home runs every month. Not to mention that, someday, Zeke Spruill (1.42 ERA in Double-A) and the prospects Arizona got back are going to show up in the big leagues. But Justin Upton, said one NL exec, "was a classic change-of-scenery guy." And clearly, the scenery in Georgia is his kind of panorama.
No team traded for a better rent-a-player than the Reds
Shin-Soo Choo might be just passing through Cincinnati on his way to free agency. And he might not remind you of Kenneth Griffey Jr. when he patrols center field. But what a perfect fit this guy was for a lineup whose leadoff hitters had the worst on-base percentage in baseball last season (.254). Choo has churned out a .462 OBP out of the leadoff hole so far. And if he keeps that up, it would be the second highest by any leadoff man in the expansion era, trailing only Wade Boggs (.476) in 1988. "Shin-Soo Choo," said one NL exec, "is a massive difference-maker."
No trade was more overrated than Marlins-Blue Jays
It was a deal that inspired outrage in South Beach and many a season-ticket purchase in Ontario. But suddenly, that humongous 12-player Marlins-Blue Jays mega-swap doesn't look so franchise-altering anymore. Jose Reyes is hurt. Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle both have ERAs over 6.00. Emilio Bonifacio is hitting .171/.213/.300 with no stolen bases. And the most productive player the Marlins dealt away (John Buck) was a guy the Blue Jays then spun off to the Mets. "Reyes was the only reason I liked that trade," said one NL exec. "Now he's hurt. Johnson is hurt. Buehrle has been bad. So that trade probably was the most overblown trade of the winter." Is it possible it could actually turn out to be a better deal for Miami than Toronto? Stunningly, it is.
The Royals can pitch
There weren't a lot of positive reviews when the Royals traded for James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana last winter. And we'll concede that, three years from now, if Wil Myers is an All-Star and Shields can't be found within a thousand miles of Arthur Bryant's, the we-told-you-so's will be flying. But GM Dayton Moore felt like it was time for this team to do what it needed to do to take the next step. And so far, his troops have the look of a club ready to do so. Santana (3-1, 2.00 ERA) is seventh in the league in ERA and WHIP. Shields (2-2, 3.00 ERA) is 10th in the AL in WHIP, eighth in strikeouts and maybe first in clubhouse-culture transformation. And the Royals are third in the league in ERA and fifth in starting pitcher ERA (10th and 11th, respectively, last year). Ask yourself this: How long has it been since any Royals team before this one had a rotation that gave it a shot to win almost every night? "It's probably been 20 years," said one AL exec, "since the Royals had a rotation like this."
Never write off the Yankees
If you're one of those people who kissed off the Yankees in spring training, predicted they'd finish last and enjoyed every minute of it, here's the word we have for you: Oops! They've scraped together enough starting pitching, enough home runs, enough Robinson Cano super-heroics and enough production from all the fallen stars they rounded up off the scrap heap to compile the second-best record in baseball (17-10). "The resiliency of the Yankees is incredible," said one AL exec, "the way they've battled through all their injuries and all their issues. Vernon Wells puts on the pinstripes, and all of a sudden he's a completely different player. Just incredible what they've been able to do, with the guys they've done it with."
The Rockies are better than we thought
They lost 98 games last year. And you know how many teams have lost 98 times one year and made the postseason the next? Not a one. So it's probably a stretch to think the Rockies will be the first. But this team has gotten people's attention. The new manager, Walt Weiss, has made a real impact, scrapping some of the gimmicks of the past, restoring order and changing the culture of a team coming off two straight ugly seasons. Dexter Fowler looks like his light bulb has gone on. Their home/road splits aren't as insane as usual. And their stars have actually gotten on the field together for a change. "Having Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in the lineup really does make a difference," said one scout. "We haven't seen them out there much together since 2010."
The (Cy) Young and the (almost) winless
Nearly five weeks into the season, neither of the two defending Cy Youngs -- R.A. Dickey (2-4, 4.50) and David Price (1-2, 5.51) -- has a winning record. Dickey can blame his creaky back and neck. Price can blame his offense and bullpen. But just so they know, there hasn't been a season in which both incumbent Cy Youngs finished with losing records since 1990 (when Bret Saberhagen and a closer, Mark Davis, did it). And we haven't had a year in which two Cy Young starters finished with a losing record since 1983 (Steve Carlton, Pete Vuckovich).
The Marlins aren't real good at offense
We knew the Marlins weren't going to be a threat to outhomer the 2005 Rangers or outscore the 1931 Yankees. But we didn't know we'd be looking up, more than a month into the season, and finding the Fish slugging a measly .315. Unless they pick up the pace, that would put them on track to finish with the lowest slugging percentage by a National League team in 50 years -- since the 1963 Houston Colt-45's slugged a scenic .301. And now that Giancarlo Stanton is out for many weeks, nothing's out of the question for this group. Last Friday, this team actually started a lineup that had combined for zero home runs all season. According to the Cubs' intrepid broadcast team of Len Kaspar and Jim Deshaies, no team had done that in its 23rd game of any season since Broderick Perkins' 1981 Padres.
Yu Darvish could be the first Japanese Cy Young
Now we know what the Rangers were thinking when they forked out a $60 million contract for the pride of Osaka, on top of a $51.7 million posting fee. They were thinking domination. And that's what they're getting these days from Darvish: A major league leading 58 strikeouts in only 38 2/3 innings. A potentially historic 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Four starts with no more than three hits allowed. One start with 27 swings and misses. And the look of a guy who now understands what baseball on this side of the Pacific is all about. "He's accustomed now to the rotation schedule, and he's got a better feel for the mound, the travel and the culture," said one AL exec. "Whatever he does from here on out, I won't be surprised."
Rick Ankiel makes Adam Dunn look like Tony Gwynn
People keep writing and tweeting at us, asking the same question over and over: Has any player ever had a season like Rick Ankiel's? Huh? Of course not. The good news for the Astros' sweet-swinging right fielder is: He's hit five home runs. And he's slugging .527. The not-so-good news are the other numbers on his stat sheet: 33 strikeouts (in 55 at-bats), 1 walk, 3 singles, .200 batting average, .214 OBP. So has any player, you ask, ever slugged over .500 in a season in which his batting average was under .200? As we were saying, of course not. Only three have ever even slugged .400, led by Mark Reynolds' .433/.198 in 2010. Too bad Ankiel isn't still pitching. Those 33-to-1 K/BB ratios look a lot better on the mound.
This season is sponsored by the letter K
Finally, we now know baseball's Word of the Year: S-T-R-I-K-E-O-U-T-S. As the Elias Sports Bureau reported the other day, more living, breathing major league hitters (5.992) struck out in April 2013 than in any other April in history. And there were 15.29 strikeouts in the average game, the second-highest rate of whiffing in any month ever -- trailing only the final month of last season. At this rate, the Braves are going to strike out 1,530 times -- and finish first. The Astros will wind up as the first 1,600-strikeout team ever. And the total number of punchouts across the big leagues would be an insane 37,227 -- up nearly 3,000 from just two years ago. So no matter how hot it is in the ballpark this summer, at least there will always be a breeze. "That's why I've got a cold," quipped one scout. "With all those whiffs, it's all that air that keeps coming back at me."
Ready to Rumble
• Even a week ago, we wouldn't have bet a copy of the Life and Times of Chuckie Carr on the Marlins trading Giancarlo Stanton in July. But now that Stanton has blown out his hamstring and he's out well into June, if not beyond? Uh, that ought to about do it for that July-trade scenario.
"If they trade him in-season, they probably wouldn't get any major league talent," said one exec of Stanton. "So given everything that's happened with their team and their attendance, are they really in a position to make a deal for him where they just get back prospects? Probably not. So they're better off keeping him all year and trading him in the offseason, so they're getting some major league pieces in return."
• Incidentally, if you had "269" in the "How Many Players in Baseball Will Homer This Season Before Giancarlo Stanton" pool, you win.
Tampa Bay Rays
• There might be no team in either league that contenders are eyeballing more closely these next couple of months than Tampa Bay. You can sum up the reason in two words: David Price. Those teams know the Rays will keep him in July if they're alive in the AL East, and will listen hard if they're out of contention. But what happens if they're caught in between?
"Let's say they're right about .500 at the All-Star break," said the same exec quoted above. "If there's one team, and one front office, in one market where they just might say, `We're not good enough to win it this year,' and deal him, they're that team."
And what kind of market would there be for David Price in July, two-plus seasons from free agency? "Epic," the exec said. "Everyone can use a David Price. He starts Game 1 or Game 2 [of a postseason series] for every team in baseball."
• The buzzards are already starting to circle over the Phillies, a team that's now 5-14 this season against everyone but the Mets and Marlins. But Phillies officials have told teams that have checked in that they still expect their club to contend and won't even think about selling for another two months.
The biggest buzz from teams eyeing the Phillies revolves around whether a sell-off, if it happens, would include Chase Utley, who is in the last year of his contract. One exec who says he's done some reconnaissance on that topic says his impression is that the Phillies would approach Utley first and get a feel for whether he wants to go elsewhere. Utley's contract allows him to block trades to 21 teams. He'll be just short of 10-and-5 trade-veto rights at the deadline.
• Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell are the only two members of the Astros' rotation with ERAs under 7.00. But that doesn't mean the 'Stros wouldn't listen to offers on both of them before the deadline. We've been asking execs which one they'd rather trade for if they had a choice. Almost all say Harrell. Two more years of control, for one thing. (Can't be a free agent until 2018.) And the big reservation on Norris hasn't changed much: "Still pretty much a two-pitch guy," said one scout. He might be an ace in Houston. But quite a few teams think he profiles more as a bullpen weapon on a contender.
• Teams that have checked in on Brian Wilson have been told he's not even going to throw for interested clubs until he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. His current loose target date: The All-Star break.
• The real issue with Stephen Strasburg has very little to do with that "tightness" in his forearm that Davey Johnson referred to Monday. It has to do with Strasburg's delivery, which hasn't been the same since spring training. Scouts and other teams have been talking for weeks about how Strasburg has been falling off to the first-base side, a product of an upper body and lower body that are way out of sync.
"Something's going on," said one scout. "I'm not saying he's hurt. But he's going to get hurt -- put it that way -- if he keeps throwing like he's throwing."
• Another big concern for the Nationals is their offense, which had topped two runs just twice since April 20 before their big three-run "eruption" Thursday. "They've got a very undisciplined approach right now," said one scout. "They're swinging early in the count. They're making a lot of soft outs. They're just not grinding out at-bats right now."
For the record, the Nationals' pitches seen per plate appearance (3.82) are almost identical to last season (3.79). But they were sixth in the league in on-base percentage last year (.322). They're down to .293 this year, tied with the Cubs for last in the league among teams not called "the Marlins."
• Scouts covering the Yankees' system say they're targeting right-handed bats. But they might be limited to small-scale deals. One scout says flatly: "They can't go out and make an impact deal. They don't have enough pieces."
• Is Tim Hudson a Hall of Famer? He's stitching together a fascinating case. Reasons you'd be tempted to say yes: At 200-105, he has the eighth-best winning percentage (.656) among the 200-Win Club. And his teams have never had a losing record in games he pitched in any full season of his career.
Reason to say not quite: He has the eighth-lowest strikeout rate, compared with the league average, among 200-game winners in the last half-century. Other than Tom Glavine, whose 305 wins will tower over his strikeout numbers for voters, none of the seven pitchers with lower rates are in Cooperstown or figure to be. So we're guessing Hudson needs to keep this up for at least another couple of years to get voters onboard.
• New Pirates hitting coach Jay Bell has an interesting take on Andrew McCutchen: "He doesn't know how good he's going to be." McCutchen, Bell said, reminds him of a young Barry Bonds, in the sense that his physical tools are carrying him while he figures out how to "control the game mentally." That's the part the Pirates thought McCutchen allowed to overwhelm him last season, when he hit just .240/.342/.411, with more strikeouts than hits, over his final 50 games.
"I'm talking about, when you feel yourself getting a little out of control, controlling the game internally," Bell said. "It's about: `Don't let anything affect your approach to the game.' I saw it with Barry. I saw it with [Albert] Pujols. The mental side of the game is the part that separates players. If you don't figure out that part of it, you don't become the player you want to become. But with [McCutchen], it's only a matter of time."
• Finally, the beloved, historic figure known as Abraham "Corky" Miller is back in the big leagues -- for the first time since 2010 -- for a stint as the Reds' backup catcher while Ryan Hanigan is on the disabled list. So what makes Corky so historic, you ask? This is his 13th big league season. He's never gotten 30 hits in any of them. Only another backup shin-guarder, Tom Prince, ever accumulated more seasons (15) of fewer than 30 hits. But Prince did get to 30 twice. So no player ever spent more years in the big leagues without getting 30 hits in at least one season. Gotta hand it to the Corkmeister. As one scout put it, "he's got great survivability."
Tweets of the Week
Time once again for more classic adventures in butt-dialing and butt-tweeting from Mets public relations witticist Jay Horwitz:
— Jay Horwitz (@Jay_HorwitzPR) April 27, 2013
Sorry this is what I meant to say: /////)$&@"=
— Jay Horwitz (@Jay_HorwitzPR) April 27, 2013
Met President Clinton at Shea.He has joined Twitter.Can't help there.If he wants to butt-dial people,I'm the man. twitter.com/Jay_HorwitzPR/…
— Jay Horwitz (@Jay_HorwitzPR) April 28, 2013
Astounding Fact of the Week
Always-entertaining Dodgers utility whiz Skip Schumaker took the mound last week for his second career pitching appearance -- and again hit 90 miles per hour on the local radar guns. Which inspired this fun tidbit, via Brooks Baseball's handy Pitch f/x tool:
• Skip Schumaker since 2007: 46 pitches, hit 90-plus 10 times.
• Barry Zito since 2007: 17,469 pitches, hit 90-plus zero times.
As always, this is a 100 percent true fact -- the only kind we provide at World Rumblings Headquarters.
There's still a long, long way to go, but here's what we've learned from the first 30 games or so.