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Between The Lines: A Look at Slow Starters

Scott Cullen

4/23/2010 2:42:41 PM

It's only a couple of weeks into the Major League Baseball season and the questions are beginning.  What do I do with Carlos Lee?  How about Carlos Zambrano?  What about guys not named Carlos?

Scott Cullen takes a look at 20 slow starters and what to do with them in this week's Between The Lines.

SLOW STARTERS
Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Chicago Cubs (1-2, 7.45 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 26 K in 19 1/3 IP) - With those strikeout numbers, it seems crazy to shuffle Zambrano off to the bullpen.  Giving up four home runs already (he gave up 10 in 169 1/3 IP in 2009) has contribued to Zambrano's early woes, but he's given up an astronomical .435 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) so there's also a lot of bad luck contributing to his high ERA and WHIP in his first four starts. 

Over the years, Zambrano has increased his reliance on his cutter to the detriment of his fastball, which has dropped a couple of MPH on average from his peak and, for the first time this season, fewer than 60% (46.5%) of his pitches have been fastballs.  His stay in the bullpen ought to be a short one.  The Cubs need Zambrano to be a horse in their rotation and, if he can still bring the heat, he'll be good enough to do that again.

Jon Lester, LHP, Boston (0-2, 8.44 ERA, 1.88 WHIP, 14 K in 16 IP) - First off, Lester's command has been awful -- walking nine in 16 innings -- so that starts the trouble.  He's throwing fewer curveballs and more change-ups than he has to this point in his career and has been more hittable (including an unlucky .379 BABIP). 

He's also faced the Yankees, Twins and Rays so far, so his schedule will get easier and Lester's results should come around soon enough.

Aaron Harang, RHP, Cincinnati (0-3, 8.31 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 15 K in 21 2/3 IP) - Giving up six home runs already has Harang behind the eight-ball.  As he throws fewer fastballs, mixing in more sliders and change-ups, Harang is increasingly hittable and it's not a trend that appears to be flukey as his .333 BABIP is actually better than the .339 mark he had in that category last season.  He won't last in the rotation with an ERA over 8.00, but even with improvement, Harang may not be worthy of interest anywhere but the deepest of leagues.

Javier Vazquez, RHP, N.Y. Yankees (1-2, 8.27 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 15 K in 16 1/3 IP) - There were concerns about Vazquez returning to New York, particularly considering his 4.91 ERA with the Yankees in 2004.  Like some others on this list, Vazquez's velocity is down a bit, averaging 88.8 MPH on fastballs (he was at 91.1 MPH last season), making him more hittable and his shaky command helps explain his early struggles. 

It's also only been three starts, including a real blow-up in his first one against Tampa Bay, so things will get better for Vazquez.

Jake Peavy, RHP, Chicago White Sox (0-1, 7.66 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 15 K in 22 1/3 IP) - The White Sox ace had been a little off in his first three starts before getting shelled by the Rays, when he walked seven in 4 1/3 IP.  It's early, but there is some reason to worry about Peavy having as many walks as strikeouts and the lowest strikeout rate of his carer (6.04/9 IP).  He's thrown more change-ups than he has in several seasons but, command more than pitch selection appears to be his issue.

Peavy may not fare as well as he did in the National League, in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, but he's still a good bet to figure this out and return to ace status.

Brandon Morrow, RHP, Toronto (1-1, 7.31 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 16 K in 16 IP) - The fireballer was rocked in his first two starts before coming in with a gem in start No. 3.  Morrow is throwing more curveballs and fewer sliders than he had previously, but some of that has to do with the approach of being a starter and changing speeds more as opposed to the power-based setup man and closer that he often was in Seattle.

Still averaging 93.4 MPH on his fastball (same as Lester, tied for 15th in MLB), and striking out a batter per inning, Morrow has intriguing potential.

Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit (1-1, 6.95 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 19 K in 22 IP) - While Morrow can bring it, precious few throw harder than Verlander, who is averaging 95.6 MPH on his fastballs.  Ubaldo Jimenez and Felipe Paulino are the only starters with better velocity.

Even so, Verlander's command has been off early in the season as he's tried to incorporate more sliders and change-ups into his repertoire.  His strikeout rate is down from last year's spectacular 10.19/9 IP and it's a bit of a slow start, but command isn't an issue that should plague Verlander long-term.

On to some hitters...

Chris Coghlan, LF, Florida (0 HR, 2 RBI, .123 AVG, 4 R, 3 SB) - Dealing with a rib injury, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year missed three games last week and has gone 2-for-19 (.105) in five games since returning.  He also appears to be pressing, walking just three times in 61 plate appearances, after walking 53 times in 565 plate appearances as a rookie.  Considering his slow start when he was first called up last year (6-for-42, .143), Coghlan is a buy-low candidate, though it may take some time for him to work through the lingering effects of the injury.

Carlos Lee, LF, Houston (0 HR, 1 RBI, .136 AVG, 4 R, 0 SB) - Veteran slugger is striking out a little more and walking less than usual and he's been unlucky, with a .167 BABIP, but he also has no power and is missing the ball more often.  The return of Lance Berkman could help provide Lee some protection in the Astros lineup, but it's fair to wonder if the 33-year-old has actually lost some of his bat speed.

Hunter Pence, RF, Houston (1 HR, 2 RBI, .179 AVG, 6 R, 1 SB) - Pence has been unlucky, with a .191 BABIP, but his contact rates are also the highest of his career, while his walk rate is shockingly low.  He's a relatively free swinger anyway, but Pence can probably snap out of this -- and he's showing signs already -- with his typical level of plate discipline.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs (3 HR, 8 RBI, .127 AVG, 4 R, 0 SB) - Ridiculously unlucky, with a .128 BABIP, Ramirez is also swinging and missing far more frequently than ever before.  Having never struck out more than 100 times in a season (100 exactly in 2001 is his career-high), he's already whiffed 22 times in 63 at-bats.  He's on a 0-for-16 slump in the last four games, but Ramirez has too much of a track record, and third base is such a shallow position, to give up on him this early.

Dexter Fowler, CF, Colorado (0 HR, 0 RBI, .169 AVG, 4 R, 1 SB) - Exercise caution with him.  After a lofty .351 BABIP helped Fowler hit a respectable .266 last season, the tables have turned and his .213 BABIP has him hitting just .169 early in the year.  Fowler's contact rates are similar from year-to-year, though he could definitely be more selective in order to get on base enough to use his speed more effectively. 

Troy Glaus, 1B, Atlanta (2 HR, 8 RBI, .170 AVG, 6 R, 0 SB) - While the veteran is seeing a similar number of pitches per plate appearance to his previous career rates, Glaus has walked just four times in 53 AB and is mired in a 1-for-23 slump.  Since he played just 14 games last season, Glaus qualifies as a sleeper, but it's going to require some patience for the rust to shake off.

J.D. Drew, RF, Boston (2 HR, 6 RBI, .148 AVG, 6 R, 0 SB) - Striking out a little more than usual and saddled with a .188 BABIP, Drew's bat may have slowed some, but with a .498 SLG or better in seven of the last eight seasons, it's worth giving him the benefit of the doubt for another few weeks to see if he starts making more consistent contact.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, N.Y. Yankees (2 HR, 7 RBI, .125 AVG, 9 R, 0 SB) - Big Tex's April batting average throughout his career is .240, while he hits at least .277 in every other month, so we'll chalk this up to his annual slow start, particularly since he's showing outstanding plate discipline, seeing more pitches per plate appearance than in any previous season.

Jhonny Peralta, 3B, Cleveland (1 HR, 4 RBI, .140 AVG, 4 R, 1 SB) - Not exactly a marquee fantasy name these days, but still viable in AL-only or even deeper leagues as a corner infielder, Peralta has been supremely unlucky thus far.  He's seeing more pitches than at any other time in his career and making more contact, yet is stuck with minimal production.  As long as Peralta is squaring up the ball and making contact, though, the hits will come.

Travis Snider, LF, Toronto (2 HR, 4 RBI, .143 AVG, 5 R, 1 SB) - The 22-year-old was a bit of a disappointment last year, hitting .241 with 9 HR and 29 RBI in 241 AB, so he's improved his approach at the plate, taking more pitches and making more contact, yet not getting results...yet.  If you have Snider, you're doing so on the basis of his potential and there is no reason to give up on that potential yet.

Nick Johnson, DH, N.Y. Yankees (1 HR, 5 RBI, .125 SVG, 7 R, 0 SB) - His exceptional patience at the plate has more value in real baseball than fantasy, unless your league counts OBP, but lefty-swinging Johnson could have a decent season at homer-friendly Yankee Stadium.  He still sees a lot of pitches, and walks as much as ever, but Johnson has a .167 BABIP, compared to the .338 BABIP he had in Florida last year or his .309 career mark.  He's even making more contact, so the hits will come.

Raul Ibanez, LF, Philadelphia (0 HR, 7 RBI, .200 AVG, 6 R, 0 SB) - Better walk rate, fewer strikeouts, more contact, yet no power.  He's 37-year-old, so maybe power is in decline, but he was 36 when he hit a career-high 34 homers last year.  That can't be gone just like that.

Lyle Overbay, 1B, Toronto (0 HR, 3 RBI, .119 AVG, 7 R, 0 SB) - While he's being more selective than ever, seeing a lot of pitches, Overbay's walk rate is below his career average and strikeout rate is at an all-time high.  He's been unlucky, with a .179 BABIP, but his declining contact is reason to think that Brett Wallace (6 HR in 52 AB at AAA) could be knocking on the door soon.
 
Chris Davis, 1B, Texas (0 HR, 1 RBI, .188 AVG, 2 R, 0 SB) - While his walk and strikeout rates are marginally better, Davis simply hasn't been able to consistently handle major league pitching and has been demoted to Triple-A as the Rangers have called up top prospect Justin Smoak to take over at first base.  Smoak had two homers, five RBI and was hitting .300 with a 1.010 OPS in 50 at-bats at Triple-A.

(Pitch Data information comes from www.fangraphs.com)

AROUND THE HORN
- Red Sox RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka is slated to make his first start of the season as he's recovered from a neck strain.  Given his poor 2009, there's no rush to add Dice-K until he shows what he can do.

- Giants CF Aaron Rowand may be out a month with a fractured cheekbone, which will give Eugenio Velez both a regular spot in the outfield and the leadoff gig in San Francisco.  Velez has 30 steals in 41 attempts in his career, so should get an opportunity to run.

- Kelly Johnson has moved into the leadoff spot and Gerardo Parra is seeing regular time in LF for Diamondbacks while Conor Jackson is out.

- After saying Orioles LF Felix Pie was worth watching last week, he is now on the 60-day DL with a shoulder injury.  Nolan Reimold gets the call in left.

-  Left and centre are up for grabs in the Red Sox outfield with Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron on the shelf.  Darnell McDonald, Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall and prospect Josh Reddick have all seen time there this week.  Hermida is the most appealing of the bunch.

- Tigers DH Carlos Guillen is on the DL, which could present more playing time for journeyman OF Don Kelly or Ryan Raburn, or both.

- Alberto Callaspo has remained in the Royals lineup, even though Alex Gordon has returned from injury, because 2B Chris Getz is on the DL with an oblique injury. 

- Angels C Mike Napoli should see more playing time with fellow backstop Jeff Mathis on the DL with a broken wrist.

- Adam Rosales is handling second base for the A's with Mark Ellis on the DL, while Gabe Gross should be the primary left fielder in Travis Buck's absence.

- Nationals RHP Jason Marquis will miss the next six weeks as he deals with elbow troubles.  25-year-old Luis Atilano will start in his place. Atilano was 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts at Triple-A Syracuse.

CLOSING TIME
- Even with Brian Fuentes back in the Angels' bullpen, keep an eye on Fernando Rodney.  Fuentes blew a save opportunity in his first game back.

- Brad Lidge close to returning for the Phillies, which will put Ryan Madson back into his setup role

- Franklin Morales is on the hot seat in Colorado.  Filling in for Huston Street, who is on his road to recovery from a stiff shoulder, Morales has two saves in four opportunities.  With any more stumbles, Rafael Betancourt or Manny Corpas could get a chance.

- Diamondbacks RHP Chad Qualls is 2-for-4 in save chances, making Juan Gutierrez and interesting speculative pick at this point.

BALLPARK CHATTER
"If he wants to run across the pitcher's mound, let him go run laps in the bullpen." - A's LHP Dallas Braden, on Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez.

"As soon as we score and they score, it's like someone hit us with an upper cut and we don't want to go back to the ring and keep fighting." - White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen

"Every pitch now is a little more nasty than before.  He's got the stuff to win 20 games every year.  He continues pitching like that, he's going to win, maybe, the Cy Young one year." - Nationals RHP Livan Hernandez, on Rockies RHP Ubaldo Jimenez.

"It's just bad luck. This game's about luck and it's a bad spell now. I just have to keep hanging in there and things will eventually change, hopefully." - Reds RHP Aaron Harang.

"I've been in a position where I'm a really nice fella and I'll cover. I'll get questions point blank and I feel like I'm a damn presidential press secretary sometimes instead of telling it what is it. I have to smooth it over.  I'm not smoothing it over anymore." - Orioles manager Dave Trembley wants his players to be more accountable.

**New MLB Power Rankings will go up next week.  I've been working with a new stats feed and, while the results should be better (more info. is good!), it's taking some time to adjust, particularly in the midst of NHL playoffs.**

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.