September 2009

Two-point conversion: Tejeda vs. Morrow

Remember
when every ballplayer stuck to one position, when first basemen played first base exclusively, and the
only time people mentioned the word, “utilityman,” was in reference to someone working at the local hardware store?

Those
were the days.

 

Now,
the world’s gone mad with everyone playing everywhere. Even
the line between rotation and bullpen has been blurred.

 

Some
of today’s most prominent relievers came up as starters, from Jonathan Papelbon
to Jonathan Broxton to Kerry Wood.

 

Except
now, the opposite trend seems to be gaining steam, with teams growing increasingly
comfortable testing out relievers in the rotation.   

 

Last season, Justin Duchscherer emerged as Oakland’s
unlikely ace and one of the top surprise starters.

 

This past July, Jonathan Sanchez earned acclaim for his no-hit bid against the Padres, years after trying to bust onto the Giants’ 25-man roster as a reliever.

 

Some
will remember Adam Wainwright‘s promising run as fill-in closer during the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series run, before a rash of injuries and offseason losses forced
him back to the rotation for good. Now, he’s tied for the Major League lead in
wins with 18 (although much of his Minor League career was spent starting).

 

Does
the same bright future await the most recent pair of converts, Robinson Tejeda
and Brandon Morrow?

 

Morrow
thrived as Seattle’s part-time closer last season, but translating those skills to the rotation hasn’t been easy. Coming off an ’08 campaign in which he posted
sterling 3.34 ERA while snagging 10 saves, the power righty heads down the
final stretch looking for his second win, sitting at 1-4 with a 5.08 ERA.

 

Tejeda,
meanwhile, has become impossible to ignore after winning his third straight
start Sunday, an outing in which he held the White Sox to three hits and one
earned run over six innings. The Royals righty carries a staggering 0.81 ERA over
four big league starts this season. What began as a move of necessity for
Kansas City is turning into the opportunity of a lifetime for the well-traveled
27-year-old.

 

The
truth is that both Tejeda and Morrow served as Minor League starters at one
point or another, so their conversions could probably be best described as “re-conversions.”
Most relievers have started at one point or another in the Minors, including
Wainwright and Sanchez.

 

The
main difference is this: Morrow arrived in the Majors with far more expected of
him than Tejeda, and rightly so. While Morrow was selected fifth overall in the
2005 Draft, Tejeda first signed with the Phillies. Morrow has spent his entire
professional career with the Mariners, while Tejeda has been on three big league
clubs. Morrow starred as the California Golden Bears ace before zooming through
the Mariners farm system in three Minor League seasons, while it took Tejeda parts
of 11 Minor League seasons before making a name for himself.

 

That
doesn’t necessarily guarantee Morrow having a better Major League career than Tejeda.

 

But
it doesn’t hurt his chances.

 

Morrow
already features four pitches, including a fastball that routinely hits the
mid-90s along with a sharp mid-80s slider.

 

Tejeda
also throws a mid-90s heater, and his tally of 79 strikeouts over 64 2/3
innings only adds to his appeal.

 

Still,
while his recent success renders him the flavor of the month, the bottom line
is that Tejeda only throws three pitches. It’s hard to see how he sustains this
run, much less secures a spot in the Royals rotation, without adding another.

 

However,
the main hurdle preventing Morrow from taking off is time. Once he gets stretched
out as a starter, success is there waiting for him, flaws and all.

 

Conversion
or no conversion, Morrow is bound for rebirth.

 

 

–Alex Cushing,
MLB.com

Time off works wonders for Dice-K

AP090915054432.jpg
When
celebrities find themselves at the center of controversy, the standard move is
to take time off.

 

Some
check in to rehab. Some spend time with family. Some escape to a tropical
island, sit back and listen to self-improvement audio books.

 

Even
if you’re not one of those people who follows celebrity gossip, chances are you
can still name a few recent examples (I’ll refrain to avoid a controversy of my
own).

 

Whatever
the method, the fundamental goals are the same; to repair public image by
creating the impression of humility and — most of all — set the stage for
a future comeback.

 

The
Red Sox hope time off works the same magic for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who made his long-awaited return to the mound
Tuesday after taking an 87-day sabbatical to recover from arm fatigue.  

 

More
on Tuesday’s outing later.

 

First,
the full scope of the damage Dice-K incurred this season.

 

It
all went down downhill after the World Baseball Classic, for which he took home
Most Valuable Player.

 

The
added workload disrupted his Spring Training routine and may have caused the ineffectiveness
and two stints on the disabled list that followed.

 

Fast
forward several weeks into the season, and the guy who combined for 30 wins
over his first two big league seasons was no longer recognizable.  On June 19, he was booed off the field after
surrendering six earned runs on eight hits over four innings against the Braves.
 That appearance was his last, leaving
his fantasy owners scratching their heads wondering how Dice-K — one of the game’s
top starters — had unraveled and gone 1-5 with a 8.23 ERA.

 

Thinking
long term, the Red Sox chose to sacrifice most of his 2009 season, both to
avoid any additional injuries and to reprise his rookie form.  

 

The
decision gave Matsuzaka countless hours in near-solitude at the club’s facility
in Fort Myers, Fla. There, he not only had time to collect his thoughts, air a
few grievances and build back the confidence that had been shattered by
American League hitters, but he also underwent a physical makeover that vastly
improved his conditioning.

 

Four
rehab starts for Triple-A Pawtucket yielded positive results, a 2.25 ERA and a
17/6 K/BB ratio.

 

All
the extra time off seemed to pay off Tuesday, as Dice-K held a scrappy Angels
lineup hitless over his first four frames. Matsuzaka would eventually let up
six hits over six scoreless innings, outdueling Halos ace John Lackey in the
process.  

 

It’s
too soon to say whether Dice-K is the ace of yesteryear, but things are heading
in the right direction.

 

At
the very least, aspiring fantasy champs can feel confident in Dice-K
contributing down the stretch, instead of occupying a celebrity spot on your
bench.

 

Hall
of Fame shortstop-turned-third baseman Cal Ripken is revered for his
consecutive games played streak.

 

Pitchers,
on the other hand, could learn from Matsuzaka, who is back atop the Red Sox
rotation after taking the slow road back in recovery.

 

 

–Alex Cushing,
MLB.com

Buchholz becoming Boston’s secret weapon

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While
much of the northeast had its eyes peeled on the masterful debut of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez,
another young arm was busy making his presence felt on the diamond Sunday.

 

Clay
Buchholz
kept a dangerous Rays offense to one earned run over seven innings —
his fourth straight quality start. Nailing down a spot in the Red Sox rotation
hasn’t been easy ever since his no-hit effort two years ago. A rocky rookie
season damaged expectations enough that the Red Sox kept him down at Triple-A
Pawtucket for half of 2009. And even when he was finally recalled on July 17, it
was déjà vu all over again, with his ERA ballooning to 6.05 after four outings.
 

 

Since
then, however, Buchholz has rebounded convincingly. Holding opponents to two
earned runs or fewer in six of his last eight outings has dropped his overall
ERA to 3.66. Boston’s decision to cut ties with Brad Penny last month all but
guaranteed Buchholz a rotation, and the decision is paying off.  With a 22/7 K/BB ratio over his last four
starts, the 25-year-old righty has not only rewarded Boston brass for sticking
by him through thick and thin, he also appears to be turning a corner.

 

Others
surging their way onto mixed-league lineups include:

 

As
if landing a starting role at age 20 wasn’t enough, Rangers shortstop Elvis
Andrus is making a strong bid for AL Rookie of the Year consideration, thanks
to a 15-game hit streak.

 

A
torrid nine-game hit streak from Billy Butler gives owners another exciting
Royals player not named Zack Greinke or Joakim Soria. The 23-year-old first
baseman has matured into the club’s top hitter since the All-Star break and
sports a shimmering .400 average with eight extra-base hits this month.

 

Batting
ahead of Hanley Ramirez has given Nick Johnson plenty of pitches to hit in
Florida. In fact, the oft-injured yet talented first baseman hasn’t had this
kind of protection since his Yankees years, which ended in 2003. He’s hitting
.355 with nine doubles during September, a trend that figures to continue as
the season winds down.

 

New
surroundings also appear to be bringing out the best in Vicente Padilla, who’s
gone 3-0 with a  2.01 ERA and a 17/7 K/BB
ratio over four starts since landing in the Dodgers rotation. After blanking
the Giants over the weekend, he faces them again on Friday, Sept. 18.

 

Johnson’s
former teammate, Elijah Dukes, appears going through something of a rebirth. Having
reached base safely in his last 17 games, the bulky outfielder could wrap up an
otherwise disappointing season with a bang.

 

 

–Alex Cushing,
MLB.com

Fantasy, reality converge with rising Rockies

For
better or for worse, there are some who dismiss fantasy sports as a fringe game
played by pimple-faced, backward-hat-wearing, comic-book-reading, bazooka-chewing
dorks.

And
that is totally offensive because I quit chewing bazooka years ago.

The
truth of the matter is that fantasy and reality often converge.

I
was reminded of this while watching Rockies highlights during Labor Day
weekend.

As
Colorado emerges as the National League Wild Card favorite with four
consecutive wins to improve to 18 games above .500, more of its players have emerged
as viable fantasy options. Or maybe it’s vice versa.

Two
years ago, Matt Holliday led the Rockies to their surprising postseason berth.

Now,
the team is flooded with options, starting with Holliday’s replacement in left
field, Seth Smith. Despite prolonged slumps from Brad Hawpe and Clint Barmes,
the Rockies have soared thanks largely to a little-known surge from Smith, who
sports a scorching-hot .519 average with four homers and 10 RBIs in seven September
contests, leaving him with strong overall numbers (.318 AVG, 15 HR, .573
SLG).  Yet he remains available for the taking in many leagues, probably
even yours.

The
same can be said for utilityman turned starting third baseman Ian Stewart.
Remember when Garrett Atkins carried Colorado’s offense? Neither does Stewart,
who unseated Atkins at the hot corner earlier this season and has only gained
steam since, connecting for four homers in six September games. He’s also not
getting nearly enough attention as he should, taking his eligibility at second
base into consideration.

NL
Rookie of the Year candidate Dexter Fowler goes on the 15-day disabled list? No
problem, just plug second-half surger Carlos Gonzalez into center field. The
reinvigorated Huston Street goes down? Don’t worry, go ahead and replace him
with former top prospect Franklin Morales, who’s converted four saves in as
many tries this month. Rotation anchor Aaron Cook needs time off? There still
might be room on the Jorge De La Rosa bandwagon.

Meanwhile,
Ubaldo Jimenez has established himself as one of the NL’s top starters, while
rotation mates Jason Marquis and Jason Hammel appear on their way to career
years. And that’s not even mentioning comeback campaigns from Troy Tulowitzki
and Todd Helton, the heart and soul of Colorado’s offense.

If
you asked savvy fantasy owners months ago about the Rockies, most would have
given you a dose of reality: There’s no shortage of young talent out in the Mile
High City.

–Alex Cushing,
MLB.com

Carrasco leads first wave of September callups

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September can be a tough time of year for
baseball buffs.

 

Those of you without TiVo are forced
to sit through 23 minutes of football coverage before catching any Major League
updates.

 

And if your favorite team has little hope of
playing deep into October, forget about it. You’re better off checking online
or reading the box scores.

 

It’s as if the only 10 contending teams
exist, and the rest are just for show.

 

But September offers another advantage to the
other 20 clubs: Callups.

 

Although every roster expands to 40 players,
only the teams with nothing left to lose have the liberty of sitting back and
letting the kids play.

 

A few Sept. 1 promotions worth watching:

 

Carlos Carrasco, SP, Indians: One of four prospects included in the Cliff Lee trade
last month, Carrasco got his first taste of big league hitting Tuesday, and the
results weren’t pretty. Some might even say ugly. The 22-year-old righty lost
his debut after lasting only three innings and surrendering six earned runs on
nine hits and three walks. Still, that’s no reason to give up on Carrasco,
who’s looked sharp since coming over from Philadelphia, ringing up a 3.19 ERA
and a 36/7 K/BB ratio for Triple-A Columbus. Growing pains lie ahead, but good
control and quality stuff could yield surprising results from Carrasco. The
Indians have every intention of leaving him in the rotation down the final
stretch.

 

Neil Walker, 3B, Pirates: Once highly regarded, Walker’s stock has fallen in
recent years as it does for so many high schools Draft picks. But five years
after the Pirates selected him 11th overall, he’s up, without a starting job
and without much expected of him. Plate discipline has always prevented Walker
from taking the next step. Then again, good plate discipline hasn’t exactly
helped Andy LaRoche make a strong case as the Bucs third baseman of the future,
has it? The mere presence of Walker — an imposing switch-hitter in the
batters’ box with plenty of pop — gives LaRoche reason to worry about his job
security.

 

Tyler Flowers, C/1B, White Sox: The centerpiece of the Javier Vazquez trade last
offseason, Flowers joins the White Sox after an impressive run across two Minor
League levels in which he combined for a .297 average and a .516 slugging
percentage. The major selling point is that his primary position is catcher.
Now, he’ll have a hard time unseating A.J. Pierzynski, who’s enjoying another
rock-solid campaign behind the dish, especially during a postseason run. That
said, the departure of Jim Thome freed up playing time on the South Side, and
Flowers could factor into the mix at DH as the end draws near.

 

 

–Alex
Cushing, MLB.com