Commentary

Roberts Report: Kennedy, Verlander struggle

Updated: March 26, 2008, 2:02 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

Six-plus hours of baseball, 10-plus hours at the ballpark, one chilly wind tunnel known as the media press row at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven (where the Indians train), eight cups of coffee, not one complaint. Any day with live baseball is a good day.

Day Two in Florida took me to Winter Haven to catch a sold-out Yankees-Indians tilt, and then up to Lakeland for the Astros-Tigers night slugfest. I didn't get the same quality of interviews I had in yesterday's report, but I saw a lot of noteworthy events to pass along to y'all.

NY Yankees at Cleveland (in Winter Haven)

• I've been a big believer in Yankees prospect (and now rotation-bound) Ian Kennedy as he has progressed through the system, but he really tested my faith Tuesday. As I noted in the Yankees 30 Questions I wrote, Kennedy is not blessed with teammate Phil Hughes' lightning stuff. He is a finesse pitcher who barely tops 90 and relies on pinpoint location and movement on his pitches. He had none of that working yesterday.

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He wasn't "popping" the glove; he wasn't hitting his spots; he racked up a high pitch count by "nibbling" and was often very wild (he walked four batters). He didn't allow any earned runs because a Melky Cabrera error gave the Indians an extra out to work with in a four-run Cleveland first, but he essentially allowed nine baserunners in 4-2/3 innings. He left a pitch about chest high to Ryan Garko, who tomahawked it to left field and out of the park, and he seemed unwilling to challenge Travis Hafner, who has not had a good spring (and even struck out later against Darrell Rasner).

Now, because he pitched well for the Yankees last September (1.90 ERA) and came into the game with a 2.70 ERA this spring, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Plus, it was very windy -- a condition which can distract a pitcher because it plays with his breaking stuff and control -- and the kid handled the poor performance with genuine class after the game. Kennedy was shoulder-shrugging, smiling, willing to chat. In fact, as I talked to him, I couldn't help but think the freckle-faced 23-year-old actually looked more like a 15-year-old who was just talking about a bad day as a freshman in high school. He went on to talk about his living arrangements in New York. The kid is mentally strong enough to handle the pressure of pitching for the Yankees. And as manager Joe Girardi noted, Kennedy has a lot of weapons to go to when his stuff isn't the best, and Kennedy himself added that he doesn't need to be perfect with his offense backing him.

That said, it did reinforce an old theory of mine: you simply can't count on any pitcher developing as the "next Greg Maddux." Immediate success usually comes quicker with power pitchers (or at least power sinkerballers). In other words, the "next Kerry Wood" is safer from the get-go than the next Maddux. Because of their stuff, power pitchers have more margin for error. Kennedy has the mound savvy, but his margin is pretty small.

• Opposing pitcher Paul Byrd looked good -- the first time through the Yankees' lineup, anyway. When the mighty lineup saw him again, they hammered him. He allowed 10 hits and walked three in 6 1/3 innings. I feel this will become an all-too-common theme for Byrd this season. It takes hitters some time to adjust to his funky delivery and arm slot, but once they do, look out.

Hideki Matsui
AP Photo/Kathy WillensHideki Matsui may be in for a long season at the plate.
• I'm worried about Hideki Matsui. He's only 33, but he was running around Tuesday like he was in his mid-40s. Even in his postgame sprints, he appeared to be laboring. And he was pulling off the ball as a hitter (even more than usual), which contributed to his 0-for-3 day.

Let's not forget Matsui logged a lot of games over in Japan, many of them on artificial turf fields, so his mileage is higher than his age would suggest. And he's recovering from minor surgery on his right knee. In the clubhouse after the game, he had both knees heavily wrapped and looked pretty discouraged. When asked how he was doing by a teammate, Matsui smiled, rolled his eyes and put both his thumbs down. To me, he's scary to own/draft right now, and judging by his draft position, I'm not alone there.

• Fantasy owners don't like to hear this, but Molina brother Jose deserves a big-league job as a backup catcher (and he'll probably get it with the Yanks). You need only watch the light-hitting catcher throw the ball to realize that. He has a Yadier-like cannon, whi he displayed in throwing out would-be basestealer (Jamey Carroll) by several steps.

• I've heard this from Yankees fans before, but anybody who doubts whether Robinson Cano is the legit .314 hitter his career mark suggests need only watch him play. He has a short, deliberate stroke, and he goes with the pitch very well. He hit three vastly different areas of the field in his 3-for-4 (with two doubles) day, going with the pitch all three times. That brought his spring average up to .464. Is this the year he hits 20 homers (after 19 last season)? Yeah. Will he hit 25 or 30? I don't think so; he's too much of a line-drive hitter. But I can see him batting .330 again.

• Another guy I came away impressed with -- or more impressed with -- is Franklin Gutierrez. I've always been a big fan, even though his play hasn't really warranted it. He has a great "baseball body" (tall and strong, but flexible) and can hit all pitches to all fields. He battled with two strikes before yanking a mid-90s Kyle Farnsworth fastball to left field for a hit. He also has a great arm and runs well. Let's hope the Indians haven't typecast him as a "versus-lefties" hitter just yet because I think he has some real upside as a starter. I hope he gets that chance soon, and I'll be ready to pounce in a mixed league if he does.

Jason Giambi
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJason Giambi will wield the leather more often in 2008.
• Another guy who looked very good: Jason Giambi, who now is hitting .417 this spring. He lined two balls to deep right, one of them for a double and the other for a double for any runner but Giambi (and maybe Garko, from what I saw). After an awful 2007 season, he looks every bit the Giambi I remember, and Girardi passed along even better news (for fantasy) after the game, saying Giambi has looked good at first base this spring and will "get a lot of the playing time [at first base]" this year. That's significant to fantasy because he doesn't qualify there now in leagues that require 20-plus games at a position (he only played there 18 times in 2007). He's healthy, he's swinging it, Girardi said he was in great shape: he'll eventually qualify at first base. If he's still available in your mixed league, you might want to toss him on your bench until he qualifies at first.

• Girardi also confirmed that Andy Pettitte's first start was being pushed back, not scratched. Pettitte (back) will pitch in a game later this week, and assuming he comes out of it OK, he'll start during the opening week of the season, just a bit later that originally planned.

Shelley Duncan has a downright violent swing, which will lead to a good HR/AB ratio. But his average will suffer. In the meantime, Andy Marte also swings very hard, and he has five spring home runs to show for it. Unfortunately, it looks like that's all he can do. He has an uppercut swing, and he's hitting .204. No thanks.

• The Yankees announced that Joba Chamberlain threw in a minor league game Tuesday and will throw again Wednesday to see how he reacts to pitching back-to-back games for the first time this spring.

Josh Barfield did get into Tuesday's game late, but he was sent down to Triple-A afterward.

Houston at Detroit (in Lakeland)

Michael Bourn
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMichael Bourn has run his way onto the Astros.
• From what I saw in this game, Michael Bourn is truly a dynamic young player that I'll truly enjoy watching play. He fears nothing, he disrupts games, and I believe he's in for a big season, at least for fantasy purposes. Let me explain. He led off for the Astros and was a pest to a wild Justin Verlander in his first at-bat. He pulled one Verlander offering far enough to be a homer down the line. Though it was foul by quite a bit, he just kept fouling off pitches until he drew a walk. He then proceeded to steal second base on Pudge Rodriguez with relative ease. After singling later in the game, he stole second again, this time without a throw. So he turns on Verlander and steals second on Pudge twice. Granted, the Verlander ball was foul, and the steals were more against Verlander and his slow delivery than Pudge, but still, this is not a kid who is intimidated by his first-time-starting status. Even his outs were loud.

Bourn has 10 steals despite getting just 69 at-bats this spring. I just missed the chance to talk to him after the game (the starters' bus left early), but I would have loved to hear whether he would have picked the over or the under of the 50-steal mark I think he will reach. He has that kind of speed.

• For what it's worth, Darin Erstad, who was thought by some to be in a timeshare spot with Bourn to begin camp, is now an afterthought on the Astros. On Tuesday, he quietly entered the game late at first base. Bourn has center field covered, in more ways than one.

Kazuo Matsui still can't do anything following surgery to repair an anal fissure and has been placed on the DL. He'll be re-examined later this week, but speculation is that he'll miss at least the first couple weeks of the season. Mark Loretta is likely to get most of the starts at second base, although Tomas Perez started there Tuesday. Geoff Blum might also start some, but he is battling a sore heel right now.

• The Tigers announced Tuesday that they have signed Miguel Cabrera to a seven-year deal reportedly worth $141 million. He'll make $11.3 million this season, making the total contract an eight-year, $152 million deal. Not bad. Not surprisingly, Cabrera was grinning ear to ear before and during the game, although that's not too uncharacteristic. Also, I hear he's lost a bunch of weight, but he still looked like a pretty big kid to me.

• Cabrera got the better of Chris Sampson in the second inning, lining a pitch off Sampson's right hip. Sampson was able to stay in the game to pitch two more innings, and the team said he had a mere bruise. What's more concerning is that the four-earned-run outing put him north of the 9.00 ERA mark. He's not faring well in his battle for the fifth-starter spot.

Magglio Ordonez is in midseason form. He had three hits Tuesday: a liner to left on a down-and-in off-speed pitch, another drive off the right-center field fence on a grooved fastball, and a floater down the right-field line on an outside curveball. I've seen all I need to see there.

• Justin Verlander pitched terribly Tuesday in his final tune-up for the regular season, locking in his spring ERA at 5.85. He was extremely wild, as he sometimes can be; he missed badly often, especially early in the game. Verlander said his stuff was good but that he was getting it up in the zone. I didn't like what I saw, but Verlander has earned a free pass.

• What has gotten into Pudge? Yes, that was Rodriguez hitting his major league-leading eighth homer of the spring. He hit a 1-0 pitch so far to left field in his first at-bat that Carlos Lee elected to not even move from his spot in left field. Yeah, I know spring training stats often don't mean much, but it has to be a good sign that the 36-year-old who hit only 11 homers last season is turning on the ball so well. He's also batting .358.

J.R. Towles
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJ.R. Towles bats without gloves.
• So I wanted to get a close look at Bourn and new Astros catcher J.R. Towles. I loved what I saw of Bourn; I didn't like what I saw of Towles. Like I said about Evan Longoria on Monday, Towles seemed to be fooled and was reaching for off-speed pitches Tuesday. He's an aggressive hitter who stands close to the plate and doesn't wear batting gloves. He goes up pumpin'. He also dropped a ball in a rundown and looks a little overwhelmed right now. I have to lessen my expectations for the young catcher.

• His predecessor, Brad Ausmus, has been taking grounders in the infield and actually replaced Ty Wigginton at third base midway through the game. Wouldn't you know he gloved a tough bouncer and gunned it to first for the out. Even he seemed surprised by that. I'm not, considering he's a good athlete. But I'm still interested in him fantasy-wise, regardless of the setup, even if he does get a start now and then at third base.

Brandon Inge is a starter again, being named the starting center fielder with Curtis Granderson out. That gives him a little more value, but it's only short-term. Maybe he can showcase his versatility and bat well enough to get traded just after Granderson returns.

Gary Sheffield didn't hit well Tuesday night and has been falling in drafts and auctions, but his bat speed is definitely still there.

Carlos Guillen didn't look at all gimpy when he legged out a triple on a ball hit down the right-field line.

• You know who actually looked pretty good? Runelvys Hernandez. He was hitting 95 mph on the stadium radar gun and challenging hitters. He might have earned a bullpen spot for the 'Stros.

Jose Valverde was throwing even harder, topping out at 97 mph. Then again, that's a regular occurrence for him. He made Cabrera look bad in striking him out in the eighth inning.

Next up: Washington at Atlanta (in Orlando).

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.

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