Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Big Papi's 21st Century Breakdown

Yes, I did reference the new Green Day album in the title of this blog post. The difference between the album and David Ortiz? "21st Century Breakdown" is awesome, but David Ortiz sucks. If his recent layoff doesn't create better results, the Red Sox will have plenty of questions to answer about the future of their offense.

Terry Francona elected to give Ortiz four whole days off following his most putrid performance of the 2009 season thus far last Thursday, when the former slugger went 0-for-7 and left a stunning 12 men on base. His season numbers tell the full story: a line of .208/.318/.300, 30 strikeouts in 130 at-bats and exactly zero home runs.

I feel like it's been theorized ad naseum about what exactly is wrong with Big Papi. What we'll discover, beginning with tonight's tilt against Toronto, is if this uber-slump has been because of something mental. I assume the biggest reason behind the hiatus was getting his head straight, and probably also to work on whatever holes exist in his swing.

But I'm skeptical about his problems being purely mental. This is David Ortiz we're talking about. How is it possible that the same guy who has perfomed at historic levels under pressure would fold psychologically during an afternoon contest in Anaheim in mid-May? I also refuse to acknowledge the chatter about steroids because at this time it's completely baseless.

Therefore, it has to be something physical. He dealt with a sore shoulder February, and probably should not have participated in the World Baseball Classic because of it. (I'm not going to blame the WBC for his troubles because whatever effect it had couldn't be this adverse). There has been constant issues with his knees through the last few years, and he missed significant time last season after partially tearing a tendon in his left wrist. He never had surgery on the wrist, and actually performed pretty well upon returning.

His issues at the plate are coming as a result of at least one of these three things, if not a combination of all three. There's no other explanation at this point. The question: If Ortiz really is hurt, why isn't he saying anything about it? Doesn't he realize that by staying out there and hitting so ineffectively that he's simply crushing his team?

Francona, whose undying faith in his players has definitely hurt the Red Sox in the past, will soon make public where the post-layoff Ortiz will bat in the order. I would be surprised if Francona moves Ortiz out of the 3rd spot just because that's what Francona does. And this continuation will definitely hurt the team if Ortiz continues to suck, and the run totals for Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia will drop. Kevin Youkilis will return to the lineup tomorrow, which should help. But J.D. Drew should hit third, with Youkilis fourth and Jason Bay fifth, followed by Ortiz. If this actually happens soon, I'll be shocked.

But how long will the Red Sox allow Ortiz to murder them, regardless of where he hits in the order? Say Ortiz is still homerless in two weeks. The Red Sox will have no choice but to put Papi on the DL. They might have to make up an injury so long as Ortiz is unwilling to admit that he's unhealthy. Either way, they'll need to look for another source of power. Indians like Victor Martinez and Matt LaPorta have already been bandied about, and with the Sox eight-deep in their starting rotation, a deal for a slugger is probable.

Yet, maybe four days off will make all the difference. Maybe Ortiz comes out tonight against Brian Tallet, goes deep twice, and leads the Red Sox to an important victory. Youkilis returns, the starting pitching finds consistency, the bullpen continues to dominate, and the Red Sox overtake the Blue Jays and sit in the AL East driver's seat will into the summer.

It's hard to be optimistic. Big Papi just doesn't seem like the same ballplayer, just three years after belting 54 homers. Unlike Green Day, David Ortiz isn't getting better with age.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Would the Tigers Really Release Mags?

The Tigers entered Wednesday in a virtual tie with the Royals for the best record in the AL Central Division. Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge have been hitting well with Edwin Jackson carrying the rotation. This team needed a strong start given the precarious economic condition of their city, and attendance hasn't been too bad so far (hovering around the 21,000-27,000 mark). But they've got one tiny little problem: one of their highest-paid players is performing well below expectations. And they might be forced to pay him even more if they don't cut bait on his contract soon.

Magglio Ordonez has been ice cold in 2009, with three extra-base hits and a pedestrian .634 OPS in 112 at bats this season. He's making a cool $18 million this year with another $18 million due next year should he hit 135 starts or 540 plate appearances in '09. That option has a $3 million buyout, plus there's also the matter of a 2011 option for $15 million with no buyout should he reach the same plateaus in '10.

Jim Leyland has been dropping Mags, 35, down in the order and taking him out of games for defensive replacements of late. Is this an indirect attempt to decrease plate appearances so he won't trigger the $18 million option for next year? 

Or, why won't the Tigers just bite the bullet, release Ordonez and save themselves millions in the process, as has been rumored for some time now? They'd still be on the hook for about $17.5 million this year and the $3 million 2010 buyout. But that's a lot better than owing him an additional $15 million next year and potentially $15 million in 2011. Don't forget, we're talking about an already-declining outfielder who's about to become a full-time DH in his age 36 and 37 seasons with an extensive injury history.

Alright, lets hit the brakes on this one for a second. The Tigers are contending, even surprising in 2009. People are still turning out to the ballpark and summer is fast approaching. Even though Mags has struggled, dumping a player with his track record (after all, he hit .363 only two years ago) would send the wrong message to Detroit fans. 

If they want fans to keep filling up seats, a sure-fire way to divert their attention away would be to say, "Well, we've got a solid club but we're going to send one of our veteran leaders packing for nothing so we can save ourselves $30 million over the next two years. But hey, bleacher seats are only $7! Come on out to Comerica!"

Also, who's to say Ordonez won't turn it around? The season is still young, and he's never hit lower than .282 during any season of his career. Sure, he can't play the field everyday like he used to and will need to DH quite a bit. But isn't that part of the reason why they dumped Sheffield over the spring? He's also averaged 24 homers over the last three seasons. He's not dead yet. If I can talk myself into a David Ortiz turnaround, then surely Mags can do the same.

But that number looms large: $30 million. For an aging slugger. In a town that's short on luck and hope, let alone money. It's a tough call. As long as the club is contending, they have to hang on to Ordonez. But if things go south come July or August, and that 540 PA appears within reach, the Tigers won't have much of a choice. The sensible move will be to move on from Mags.

It's a sad reality that we even have to have this discussion. But as Brandon Flowers sang at Mohegan Sun the other night, this is the world that we live in.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Strasburg Phenomenon

He's the pitching version of Roy Hobbs. Well, besides the whole "getting shot on a train by a deranged woman" thing, hopefully.

It was confirmed last week that the Washington Nationals will select San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg with the top pick in next month's draft. This might qualify as the least surprising news item of the season thus far.

If you call yourself a baseball fan, and haven't been living under a rock for the past few months, you probably already know a lot about Strasburg. The 6', 4", 220-pound hurler started gaining notoriety last year when he went 8-3 with a 1.57 ERA and 133 Ks in 97.1 innings for Tony Gwynn's Aztecs. He was the only collegiate player selected to play for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. He chose Scott Boras to be his "adviser," ensuring he meant business about the 2009 draft.

What Strasburg has in his possession is an array of lethal pitches, and the strong physical presence on the mound to go with them, that comes along once in a generation. His fastball consistently tops out at 101 mph, and unlike most pitchers with that kind of velocity, the pitch has late-moving action and his control of it is impeccable. And that's just his four-seamer. His mid-90s two-seamer has a dirty sinking action out of his clean, repeatable delivery. 

Strasburg's slider is only a few mph slower, and usually stays in the low-90s (Randy Johnson and Robb Nen, in their respective primes, are the only guys I can remember to regularly sport sliders in the low-90s). His curveball has apparently hit 88 mph, and darts away from right-handed hitters in a way that seems almost unfair. Here's some highlights of a 23-strikeout performance against Utah last year (remember, kids, you only get 27 outs in a regulation baseball game). 

That set of skills has elicited some of the most astonishing quotes I've ever read from scouts, including those in this terrific SI profile by Lee Jenkins. The consensus: Strasburg is the best pitching prospect to come along since Roger Clemens was lighting it up at Texas, no one is even close to him in the 2009 draft, he's ready to pitch in the big leagues from day one, and he may or may not be the best thing since this

That skill set has also produced these eye-popping 2009 spring numbers: 10-0, 1.38 ERA, 147 K, 15 BB in 78.1 IP. Allow me to repeat: he has 147 strikeouts in less than 80 innings this year.

The Jenkins piece illuminates a feel-good story about Strasburg's maturation from an overweight, hot-headed teenager with big talent but little motivation to one of the best prospects ever through hard work and determination. Given how precious and valuable his right arm will be, Gwynn limits Strasburg to one start a week and sensibly to 115 pitches in those starts. The stage appears to be set for the Nats to select Strasburg first, and that's where the real fun will begin.

Over the winter, whispers made the rounds that Boras would seek a record-shattering six-year, $50 million pact from any club willing to draft Strasburg. As Peter Gammons recently delineated, Boras wouldn't really be that far off in that calculation for his worth over the next six years. 

Still, it'd be awfully surprising to see someone who's never pitched a professional inning get $50 million, especially two years after David Price got $8.5 million over in six-year deal with the Rays in addition to a $5.6 million bonus. I have no doubt Strasburg's deal will set records, but just not in that drastic of a way. Instead of six years, I suspect Washington will offer Strasburg three years at around $20 million, with a bonus near $10 million. Boras will wait right to the 11:59 p.m. deadline on August 15, but it'll be in his client's best interest to take that deal.

Although Strasburg's overall talent is undeniable, his staggering college numbers have one potential drawback: they've come while Strasburg has pitched in the Mountain West Conference, which is not considered one of college baseball's premiere conferences. I'd feel much more confident in his abilities had those numbers come in the SEC, ACC or Pac-10. 

And let us not forget the less-than-stellar track record of top pitchers taken in the amateur draft. The most prominent cautionary tale is that of Brien Taylor, drafted #1 overall by the Yankees in 1991. He was similarly lauded as a can't-miss, once-in-a-generation talent, but tore his labrum in a 1993 bar fight and never made it to the Majors. Others like Ben McDonald and Bryan Bullington never lived up the hype, either. 

Strasburg has all the potential in the world and then some, but comparisons to Roger Clemens and visions of dollar signs aren't going to make him a great pro pitcher, not even a good one. I want to believe a kid who throws 101 mph will have a long, productive MLB career, but these stories often end in a malaise of rehab stints and trips to the office of Dr. James Andrews.

However, none of that should dampen what's been a ridiculous spring for Strasburg, one that will soon make him a very rich young man. He can inject life into a moribund franchise and bring people out to the ballpark for an otherwise non-desrcript team. It will be good for the game at large to have someone like Strasburg hit immediate success. 

The Roy Hobbs of pitchers is coming. Don't miss him.