Rob Lazlo and Adam Stevinson of GuysGirl debate on the week’s top storylines in baseball
We’re a month into the 2012 MLB season, and we’ve already seen a perfect game and a no-hitter. Albert Pujols is hitting .194 and has the same number of home runs as Jamie Moyer. The greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, tore his ACL and is done for the year, further weakening an already thin Yankee pitching staff. Uber-prospect Bryce Harper made his debut, and all the hoopla surrounding him has made Stephen Strasburg, the previous once-in-a-generation can’t-miss prospect, almost forgotten despite his stellar return from elbow surgery.
All indications that the Mayan prophecy that 2012 will mark the end of the world appear to be true as Baltimore is tied for the best record in baseball and leads the AL East while Boston is dead last in the division and 6.5 games behind.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the storylines from the first month of the 2012 season….
Which rookie will have the greatest impact this year?
Technically, the correct answer is probably Yu Darvish. Texas has World Series aspirations, and Darvish is expected to be a key member of the Rangers’ starting rotation. With that lineup, he’ll get a lot of run support and win a bunch of games. He shut out the Yankees for 8 ⅓ innings with 10 strikeouts and 2 walks, so he has shown the potential to dominate lineups. Plus, he won’t be held to the same innings limits as typical rookie pitchers.
However, Darvish isn’t really a rookie. I know MLB views him as a rookie because this is first year in the league, but he’s a veteran of the Japanese leagues and the World Baseball Classic. This isn’t some 22-year-old kid called up from the farm all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed; this guy is a veteran. If you want to go with a true rookie as the answer to this question, then my answer would be Matt Moore. The precocious Rays lefty started Game 1 of last year’s ALDS against Texas, going 7 shutout innings while yielding only 2 hits and striking out 6. Tampa’s offense has been scuffling a bit, and the loss of Evan Longoria hurts that struggling unit even more. The Rays’ pitching staff is going to have to carry the load in a tough division, and Moore is going to be a big part of that. If he pitches well and give Tampa depth in the rotation that the other AL East teams simply cannot match, then the Rays have an excellent shot at the postseason.
I think it is a foregone conclusion that Yu Darvish will have the greatest impact this year. He’s a damn good pitcher and he’s got a monster lineup hitting behind him. Darvish is averaging a strike out per inning and is 4-0 in 5 starts. He has an ERA in the low 2’s, although 17 walks in 33 innings pitched has his WHIP up over 1.4. That will be good enough to win plenty of games on a Rangers team that’s going to win plenty of games. But long term? My answer for greatest impact has to be the Nationals’ Bryce Harper.
Harper is just 19 years old. He has torn up every level of minor league pitching, so much so that the Nationals, who had announced before the season that he would spend the entire year in AAA, called him up in late April. With just seven games and 23 at bats under his belt, you can’t really draw any conclusions about how major league ready Harper is, but he’s clearly not overmatched even this early in his career, and I have a feeling that despite the Nationals’ statement that Harper was here for just a three week look, he’s going to be a permanent part of the Nationals’ lineup by the end of the season. There is nothing Harper can’t do. He hits for average, power, can steal bases, field and throw. “Five tool player” is a useless label that has gotten thrown around far too easily in baseball, but this kid is a five tool player who actually knows his way around the toolbox. I don’t know if Harper will have enough of a breakout season to win a ROY award, but a few years down the road, he’s got the tools to win an MVP.
Will Andy Pettite be enough to save the Yankees’ rotation in the wake of Michael Pineda’s injury and Freddie Garcia’s struggles?
No. New York’s rotation ranks 24th in all of baseball in ERA and 23rd in batting average against. The Yankees are 28th in quality starts. Last year’s rookie phenom, Ivan Nova, currently sports a 5.58 ERA while Phil Hughes’ is an unsightly 7.48. Adding one pitcher who will turn 40 in a month isn’t going to solve the Yankees’ problems. It’s merely putting a bandaid on the wound, and asking C.C. Sabathia, Hideki Kiroda, and Pettite to carry the Yankees past Tampa Bay and the powerful lineups of Toronto and Boston and deep into the playoffs is too much.
In some ways, Andy Pettitte has always been the perfect pitcher for a Yankees’ system that is built on applying offensive pressure to the opposition and then shutting down teams late. Pettitte’s penchant for getting the Yankees to the 7th inning with a lead or a tie game is what has made him so valuable to New York. But Andy Pettitte has never been a game changer, at any point in his career, and the notion that he will come in and be a second CC Sabathia is way off base. Moreover, the Yankees just lost the key to the entire thing with Mariano Rivera’s season ending injury. That moves Rafael Soriano to the closer’s role and forces everyone else in the bullpen to “move up” one spot on the depth chart.
Pettitte will likely do what he has always done, which is give you some innings without getting shelled, but at the same time, rarely shutting down the opposition and carrying the team to victory. That will help, but by itself, it won’t save the Yankees season or get them past the likes of the Texas Rangers in the playoffs.
What’s up with Albert Pujols? Is his slow start cause for concern or just a bump in the road?
There is a ton of pressure on Albert Pujols. He had the huge contract, and he immediately became “The Man” and the face of the franchise before even playing a game. Add that to switching leagues and adjusting to a new environment–new stadium, new city, new teammates, etc.–and it’s a lot to deal with. That created his slow start, and he’s not someone who is accustomed to being in a slump. I mean, he’s Albert Pujols, for crying out loud! He doesn’t get in slumps. The reason it’s gone on so long is that it’s foreign territory for him. He’s never had to deal with a prolonged slump like this before, so he doesn’t know how to get out of it. While Pujols’ slow start is astonishingly bad, he will be alright. He may no longer be the best hitter in the game–that title probably belongs to Matt Kemp at the moment–but he’s still one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. He’ll get it figured out.
In the short-term, though, Pujols’ slow start is cause for concern. The Angels have stumbled out of the gate, and as of
this writing, they are last in the AL West and trail Texas by 8 games. The Rangers are the deepest team in baseball and show no signs of slowing down. Los Angeles must not let the hole get any deeper, and they are going to need the Pujols of old if they want to climb back into this thing and challenge Texas. The rest of that lineup isn’t strong enough to withstand Pujols struggling for a year while adjusting to his new digs. The Angels can’t contend unless Albert reverts to his .300-30-100 self.
Oh, the Angels and Pujols are in some trouble here. Much more than a bump in the road. I remember when Lance Parrish was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. . .until he signed with the Phillies and switched leagues and couldn’t hit anymore. I remember when Mark Davis was the National League Cy Young winner, until he signed with the Royals and had an ERA over 5.00 the very next year. It isn’t always the kiss of death to switch leagues, but even in the era of interleague play where there’s more of a blurring of the distinction between the AL and NL, it’s still an adjustment, and one that Pujols clearly hasn’t made well.
But there’s something much more troubling going on with Albert Pujols too. He posted the lowest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage of his entire career in 2011. He drove in less than 100 runs for the first time in his career. He failed to hit 30 doubles for the first time in his career, and posted his third lowest homerun total in 2011. All of which suggests one of two things: off year or declining skills. For a team that bet HUGE dollars on “offyear,” the terrible start to 2012 has to be scarier than a 3D Wes Craven movie.