Providing that very unexpected lift
Ryan Vogelsong and Mike Morse among the players who've stepped in and performed
As the 2011 All-Star Game selections approach, Major League Baseball is about to lavish praise and attention on a lot of big-name players who'll take center stage in Phoenix two weeks from now. But for every star who's calling his agent to double-check on his incentive bonus, there's a corresponding support player whose contributions this season have gone relatively unnoticed.
As a public service, we're giving those guys their just due. This week's installment of Starting 9 recognizes journeymen, rookies and other career survivors who've given their teams an unexpected lift in response to an injury or subpar performance by a franchise mainstay. Say hello to the 2011 season's biggest Life Savers.
Ryan Vogelsong, Giants
The Giants appeared set in the rotation in spring training with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito, with veteran Jeff Suppan in camp as the designated security blanket. Then a flurry of developments altered the equation.
First the Giants released Suppan in late March. Then Zito went down with a foot injury, prompting the Giants to make a call to Triple-A Fresno for help in April.
Enter Vogelsong, who's been a blessing for an offensively challenged team that can't afford clunkers from the rotation. Before a so-so performance in Tuesday's 13-7 win over the Cubs, Vogelsong had allowed two or fewer runs in nine straight starts. That tied him with Jason Schmidt and Bill Swift for the second-best run in Giants history behind Juan Marichal, who reeled off 10 straight in 1966.
Vogelsong is also one of the best feel-good stories of the summer, thanks to a challenging career path that has included stops in Japan, Venezuela and a bunch of minor league outposts in the U.S.
With only 12 starts and 77 2/3 innings in the bank, Vogelsong might have a tough time earning a spot in the All-Star Game. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy will have a say in the process, and he's certainly on board.
"Any time a starter goes down and you have a guy come up and throw the way he has, it's a shot in the arm,'' Bochy recently told ESPN.com's Jim Caple. "He hasn't just thrown well; he's thrown as well as anybody in baseball. That's how good he's been.''
Phil Humber, White Sox
Humber has been through the wringer since the Mets selected him third overall in the 2004 draft -- right behind regrettable Matt Bush and unhittable Justin Verlander.
He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2005, and three years later the Mets sent him to Minnesota in the Johan Santana deal. Kansas City and Oakland waived Humbert this past offseason, and White Sox GM Kenny Williams picked him up for $500,000 in January.
Humber got his shot in early April with Jake Peavy on the disabled list, and all he has done is lead the Chicago staff in wins (seven), ERA (2.89), WHIP (0.97) and quality starts (11). Teammate Mark Buehrle recently began pumping him as an All-Star candidate.
Humber threw in the mid-90s in his Rice University days, but he's a different pitcher now. He has added a slider to his repertoire, and he is throwing more two-seam fastballs and trying to pitch to contact. He has thrown first-pitch strikes almost 64 percent of the time -- 18th in the majors. "He's finally healthy now, and he's quit trying to strike everybody out and learned how to pitch,'' one NL scout said.
Humber is the latest pitcher to flourish under the tutelage of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, one of baseball's best turnaround specialists.
"Through the years, I've seen him get hit all over the place at times, but he never hung his head,'' a scout said. "He's just a blue-collar pitcher. He competes as well as anyone on that [Chicago] staff.''
Mike Morse, Nationals
It's a reach to suggest Morse is on the verge of a Jayson Werth- or Jose Bautista-caliber breakout at age 29. But he does have 30 homers and 87 RBIs in 506 at-bats with Washington since the start of the 2010 season. If Morse's big swing and poor strikeout-to-walk ratio have fostered some lingering doubts that he's a 600-at-bat guy, he has shown the versatility and athleticism to convince baseball people that he's a valuable 450-at-bat contributor at the very least.
Morse broke into pro ball as a shortstop with the White Sox in 2003, but, at 6-5, 230 pounds, he has long since outgrown the position. (He also served a 10-day suspension for steroids in 2005.) Morse began this season as Washington's left fielder, then moved to first base when Adam LaRoche went down with a shoulder injury.
As a group, Morse, Danny Espinosa and Laynce Nix have combined to fill the power void in Washington created by Werth's disappointing start and Ryan Zimmerman's two-month absence with an abdominal injury. Morse also has done a fine job defensively at first base.
"He might just be one of those late bloomers,'' a Nationals insider said. "Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman have been great for him. They keep telling him, 'You're a good player. Why are you doubting yourself?' I think the guy is starting to believe in himself.''
Dillon Gee, Mets
Compared with the fiasco in Los Angeles, the Mets' performance this season is borderline heartwarming. Fred Wilpon just got a $200 million infusion of cash from hedge fund manager David Einhorn. New manager Terry Collins has the team playing hard, with a sense of pride. And the will-they-or-won't-they-trade-Jose Reyes? story certainly makes for great talk radio fodder.
Meanwhile, Gee (pronounced with a soft "G'') and two-time Tommy John surgery survivor Chris Capuano have helped the Mets compensate for the absence of Johan Santana to injury and Chris Young's season-ending shoulder surgery in April.
There's nothing overly fancy about Gee. He has a simple, easily repeatable delivery, an unflappable demeanor and a competitive mindset. He's probably a back-end-of-the-rotation guy in the end, but the consensus in the scouting community is that he's going to be around a while because of his ability to change speeds and throw strikes.
"He's not one of these guys with great stuff,'' said an AL scout, "but he's a pitcher. And he's got a lot of guts.''
Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo, Phillies
Phillies closer Brad Lidge has yet to pitch an inning this season because of a shoulder injury, and Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson just joined him on the disabled list. Workhorse Chad Durbin signed with Cleveland (where he has a 6.68 ERA), and the Phillies recently released left-hander J.C. Romero. Even with a rotation that routinely pitches deep into games, what's a manager desperate for bullpen stability supposed to do?
Charlie Manuel and the Phillies have gotten their answer in the form of a pick-me-up from Bastardo and Stutes, who've allowed a combined 26 hits in 54 2/3 innings of work this season.
Bastardo is a lefty fastball-slider guy with terrific deception and late movement. "I have to think he's extremely tough to time,'' said one scout, who predicted that Bastardo will have to make an adjustment eventually when hitters start laying off more balls and forcing him to show command within the strike zone.
Stutes, who pitched for back-to-back College World Series champions at Oregon State, is so low-key it's hard to find a pulse. After Madson's injury thrust him into a potential closer role in Philly, Stutes stood before the cameras and didn't sound like a guy who was fazed by the prospect of facing Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis in the ninth inning with 45,000 fans hanging on every pitch. He was more flustered earlier this week over the prospect of getting his hair cut.
"I'm impressed with his whole demeanor,'' one scout said. "You would not know that kid's a rookie. God almighty.''
Brandon League, Mariners
Closers are bound to encounter rocky stretches over a long season, but League outdid himself in May, allowing 10 runs in three innings, blowing three saves and suffering a loss in a spirit-crushing, six-day span against the White Sox, Orioles and Indians. Seattle columnists, bloggers and fans immediately clamored for someone, anyone to take over as the team's closer. Big leaguers Aaron Laffey, David Pauley and Jamey Wright and minor leaguers Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes were among the names being bandied around in conversation.
Not anymore. League hasn't allowed an earned run in his past 18 appearances and is tied with Mariano Rivera for the American League lead with 21 saves. He has allowed one home run this season and has walked only five batters in 33 2/3 innings.
It's a nice redemption story for a guy who was thrust into the closer's job in Seattle by default when David Aardsma underwent hip surgery in January. The Mariners' offense is so feeble, and they have such small margin for error, that they can't afford to fritter away leads in the ninth. Aardsma is recovering from a strained elbow along with the hip surgery, so League isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
David Robertson, Yankees
Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, those veteran recyclables, have justifiably received credit for helping the Yankees weather some upheaval in the rotation. Garcia has nine quality starts -- tying him with CC Sabathia for the team lead -- and Colon showed some old Cy Young Award-winning flashes before going down with a hamstring injury two weeks ago.
Robertson, meanwhile, has been a stabilizing force amid the Yankees' ongoing bullpen chaos. While Rafael Soriano plays catch in Tampa in his recovery from elbow problems, Joba Chamberlain rehabs from an elbow reconstruction and Pedro Feliciano tries plasma therapy in an attempt to avoid shoulder surgery, Robertson continues to throw high-leverage innings as manager Joe Girardi's designated bridge to Mariano Rivera.
"He's always had that great curveball,'' one scout said. "And Girardi really likes him and trusts him.''
Robertson is averaging 14.47 strikeouts per nine innings and has allowed one earned run in 19 appearances since mid-May. Yes, he walks too many batters, but, judging from that 1.11 ERA, he's adept at wriggling off the hook.
Not that Robertson needs any bonus points for good citizenship, but he also has launched a website to raise money for people in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which was devastated by tornadoes in late April.
Kyle McClellan, Cardinals
Pick an area of the Cardinals roster, and manager Tony La Russa has had to do some caulking and patching to it because of an injury or other unforeseen disaster. Ryan Franklin's implosion created an opportunity for Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas to close games. Salas has 12 saves but has been afflicted with a mild case of home run-itis of late.
David Freese's injury led to at-bats for Daniel Descalso, who's been reliable defensively and is hitting .288 with a .910 OPS with runners in scoring position. And Allen Craig was putting up some nice numbers at multiple positions before going down with a knee injury three weeks ago.
McClellan's ERA has risen from 3.11 to 4.02 in the past month, but he has helped fill the void created by Adam Wainwright's spring training Tommy John surgery. The question is, how much of a contribution can La Russa and Dave Duncan squeeze out of McClellan in the second half? His 85 innings this season are a major league high. It won't be long before he closes in on his minor league high of 128 innings with Class A Peoria in 2004.
Alexi Ogando, Rangers
Flash back to late March, and the defending AL champions had a major problem: Starter Tommy Hunter had just gone down with a groin injury, and manager Ron Washington was desperate for someone to eat innings. The Rangers didn't want to mess with closer Neftali Feliz, so they opted for Ogando, a converted outfielder who had pitched almost exclusively in relief since 2006.
Two weeks ago, Ogando was 7-0 with a 2.10 ERA and scouts were raving about his fastball command and secondary stuff. He has since tailed off because of fatigue, putting a damper on his All-Star aspirations. Now, the question is this: How do the Rangers plan to keep him fresh for the second half? Ogando's 91 innings in April, May and June surpass his workload of 72 innings for the entire 2010 season.
The other big issue in Texas: Ogando's move to the rotation has created a relief void that's been a challenge to fill. Texas' bullpen is 9-16 with a 4.53 ERA, and the Rangers plan to move Hunter to the 'pen when he returns from his minor league rehab assignment.
Others of note
Jamey Carroll, Dodgers: Carroll is such a fundamentally sound, team-first guy that even former manager Frank Robinson is a fan. Carroll filled in nicely at shortstop early this season when Rafael Furcal went down with an oblique injury, then refused to complain when the Dodgers called up Dee Gordon and banished Carroll to the bench with a .372 on-base percentage. The guy is as professional as they come.
Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks: Roberts gave manager Kirk Gibson energy, versatility and surprising power as a fill-in at third base after Geoff Blum went down with a knee injury and Melvin Mora flopped at the position. He has hit 10 homers, played some second base, and made cameos at shortstop and left field. He's a budding Ben Zobrist, with a lot more tattoos.
Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks: He's the Ryan Roberts of the Arizona pitching staff.
Jeff Karstens, Pirates: Karstens was thrown into the No. 5 spot in Pittsburgh, replacing Ross Ohlendorf, and he has responded with a 2.66 ERA over 17 appearances, including 13 starts. At age 28, he still has to convince the skeptics that he can hold up for the duration.
Al Alburquerque, Tigers: Alburquerque, signed out of the Dominican Republic by master evaluator Dick Egan, plugged a hole in the Detroit bullpen after the obligatory Joel Zumaya injury. He's 5-1 with a 2.79 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 29 innings, and he has outpitched big free-agent signee Joaquin Benoit. "He might have the nastiest slider in baseball,'' a scout said. "It's a disappearing slider.''
Casey Kotchman, Rays: Kotchman began the season in the minors but got a reprieve when Manny Ramirez retired in April. He took the starting first-base job from Dan Johnson, and he's given the Rays the usual stellar defense while leading the team with a .338 batting average.
Mark Trumbo, Angels: Trumbo's .300 on-base percentage is nothing special, but he has given the Angels 13 homers and helped compensate for the loss of Kendrys Morales to an ankle injury. Trumbo's 13 homers are just eight fewer than the combined total for Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick