Lilly, Marquis paying off for Cubs
Judging a pitcher with a multiyear contract after six weeks is sort of like reviewing "The Wizard of Oz" before the big twister scene. Between the Munchkins, the flying monkeys and the prospect of a few disabled list visits down the road, you can be sure things will get more interesting between now and the closing credits.
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Several big league clubs, ignoring the historical warning signs, spent liberally on long-term deals for free agent starters in the offseason, at a total cost of nearly $550 million. That doesn't even include Boston's $51.1 million posting fee to negotiate with Scott Boras for Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Are the big spenders getting the desired return on their investments? With apologies to Kei Igawa, we look at how free agent pitchers with multiyear deals are faring in this week's installment of "Starting 9."
Kerry and Mark who?
We're listing Lilly and Marquis as a tag-team entry because they've been so impressive filling the Wood and Prior void. While Carlos Zambrano pitched like a guy preoccupied with his contract status, Lilly, Marquis and Rich Hill combined for 18 quality starts in their first 23 outings.
Lilly brought a 59-58 record to Chicago, but showed he could compete in the American League East, with a tenacity that figured to endear him to Cubs manager Lou Piniella. The two enjoyed a novel bonding moment recently when Lilly informed Piniella that his fly was unzipped during a conference at the mound. We kid you not.
Lilly's 48-8 strikeout-walk ratio is superb, and he's shown a flair for pitching to both sides of the plate. He has increased his ratio of first-pitch strikes after making it a priority over the winter.
"To his credit, he analyzed what he wanted to do to improve before he came here," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "The intent to become a better pitcher was there, and that makes it a lot easier."
The same goes for Marquis, who gained a reputation as stubborn and abrasive after clashing with Leo Mazzone in Atlanta and Dave Duncan in St. Louis. He's developed a nice rapport with Rothschild, who did some minor tinkering with his delivery -- closing up his front side and simplifying the movement of his hands.
Above all, Marquis is on a mission to show he's better than the guy who allowed 35 homers and posted a 6.02 ERA in St. Louis. He's driven by the memory of being left off the Cardinals' 2007 National League Championship Series and World Series rosters.
"Jason came in with the attitude that he had something to prove," Rothschild said. "He's gone about it that way since the first day I talked to him."
Meche, perhaps the most maligned free-agent signing of all, has been steady and reliable for a Kansas City team that's always on the lookout for silver linings.
"He's doing everything we hoped he would do," Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "People in this town are more excited now than when we signed him."
Meche became the answer to a trivia question when he posted back-to-back victories over Jeff and Jered Weaver. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was the first pitcher to defeat brothers in consecutive starts since Frank Tanana beat the Yankees' Joe and Phil Niekro in 1985.
Most nights, Meche has competed on an equal footing with the best the opposition has to offer. He's gone at least six innings in every start, and hung in there against Curt Schilling, Jeremy Bonderman, Mark Buehrle and Dan Haren.
The old book on Meche: Keep after him, and he'll wilt the third time through the order. Not this year. The league is batting .268 against Meche from pitches No. 1 through 60, and .220 for pitches No. 61 through 120. He's apparently taking this staff ace business to heart.
The skeptic's view: Suppan, a ground-ball pitcher accustomed to pitching in front of a Gold Glove infield in St. Louis, would struggle in front of a defensively challenged club in Milwaukee.
Not so far. The Brewers' infield defense is better with J.J. Hardy back at short and an improved Rickie Weeks at second, and Suppan is his old unflappable self -- throwing strikes, coaxing grounders and giving Ben Sheets and the rest of the Milwaukee staff a nice, veteran role model to appreciate every fifth day.
No pitcher -- Barry Zito included -- has endured greater scrutiny than Matsuzaka, whose traveling media entourage is bigger than Bill Belichick's roster of assistant coaches.
Every outing brings another question: Is Dice-K doing enough running between starts? How does he plan to address those annoying problems pitching out of the stretch? And what do he and pitching coach-jogging buddy John Farrell talk about as they're working up a sweat?
Even when Matsuzuka pitches well, opponents seem resistant to contributing to the hype. After his complete game six-hitter against Detroit on Monday, Sean Casey and Brandon Inge issued lukewarm endorsements.
"He was all right," Inge told the Boston Herald. "He didn't stand out to me like the most dominating thing I've ever seen."
Still, the league is batting .225 against Matsuzaka, and his arsenal is so varied, it's hard to envision teams lighting him up with repeated viewings. In Monday's win, Matsuzaka started dropping splitters on Curtis Granderson in the eighth inning after keeping the pitch tucked in his back pocket all night. He is not your typical rookie.
Sure, you have to admire Zito for his competitiveness, Cy Young Award, .610 career winning percentage and six straight 200-inning seasons. But take away the guitar, surfboard and charisma, and the numbers suggest he's a glorified No. 3 starter. The Giants are paying an awful lot of money to a budding Jamie Moyer.
"He's overhyped," said one National League front office man.
Zito is topping out in the 85-86 mph range and pitching to contact, not necessarily a good thing on an aging team with defensive issues in the outfield. Let's put it this way: When National League hitters envision a Giants pitcher with shutdown stuff, Matt Cain is a lot more likely than Zito to flash before their eyes.
It'll be interesting to see what the Giants do if Alex Rodriguez exercises his opt-out clause this winter. Are they ready to part ways with Barry Bonds and spend $40 million to $45 million a year on a starting pitcher and All-Star third baseman? Check back in November.
Several clubs backed off Padilla because of concerns about his makeup, alleged alcohol issues and concentration lapses on the mound. The Rangers, who watched him thrive last season in Arlington, made a three-year commitment to Padilla in December after a brief flirtation with Zito.
Padilla has been fine at home and terrible on the road. Righties are hitting .196 against him, but lefties are beating him up to the tune of .333. And he has yet to strike out more than four batters in a game.
Padilla has picked it up of late, and his record would be better with some improved defense and run support. He has allowed eight unearned runs, the most on the Texas staff.
Eaton had trouble commanding his fastball and lacked a put-away pitch in his early outings, but the Phillies' offense saved him. His three victories came by scores of 5-2, 11-4 and 9-7.
Now he seems to be finding his stride. Eaton pitched well in a 3-2 loss to Arizona last week, and he was in control before closer Brett Myers cost him a victory Tuesday night against Milwaukee.
With Eaton, Moyer, Cole Hamels, Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia in the rotation and Myers warming to the closer role, the Phillies are reasonably fortified at the front and back ends. The heat remains on general manager Pat Gillick to find a solution for the seventh and eighth innings.
Batista has a professional demeanor and work ethic. He keeps himself in excellent shape and still has decent stuff at age 36. But he's been awfully hit-or-miss, and he looked horrendous in a 7-2 loss to New York on Saturday.
Batista watched video of the New York game and is convinced he was tipping his pitches. If the problem lies elsewhere, that 6.98 ERA won't be shrinking anytime soon.
On the bright side, he's been a heck of a lot better than Jeff Weaver.
Schmidt, who homered off Colorado's Jeff Francis in his second start, leads the Dodgers with a 1.250 OPS in four at-bats. That's where the good news ends.
After Schmidt's fastball topped out in the mid-80s, the Dodgers diagnosed him with bursitis in his right shoulder and sent him to the disabled list. Schmidt threw 45 minutes off a mound Sunday, but the team has set no timetable for his return.
The question remains: Should GM Ned Colletti have been more circumspect before signing Schmidt? The Dodgers actually tried to protect themselves by giving Schmidt a three-year contract for a higher annual salary of nearly $16 million a year.
In a press release announcing the deal, Colletti called Schmidt "a top-of-the-rotation starter who can dominate a game as well as any pitcher in the major leagues." Not these days. Schmidt is just another free-agent risk with issues, and we'll have to wait and see where the story ends.
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