Resurrection month for Lee, Quentin, others
A month is enough time for Barry Zito to become baseball's most expensive reliever, Jorge Posada to make his first trip to the disabled list, Carlos Delgado to share his disdain for curtain calls, Matt Morris to ride off into the sunset and Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez to make you wonder just how close the end really is.But for every star who fades, there's a corresponding player who overcomes an injury, demotion, bad year or other setback to reclaim his reputation. They're the real-life companions to Hugh Chance, the millworker father in David James Duncan's novel "The Brothers K," who returns from a crushed thumb and reinvents himself as pitching's "Baseball Lazarus" for the Triple-A Portland Tugs. This week's edition of "Starting 9" recognizes the game's best April resurrection stories. Some of these guys will have trouble carrying that feel-good allure all the way through to October, so let's enjoy them while the magic lasts.
Cliff Lee, LHP, Indians(4-0, 0.28 ERA, .109 batting average against) A year ago this time, Lee was on the disabled list with a strained abdominal muscle. He rejoined the Indians in May, but pitched poorly enough to warrant a trip to Triple-A Buffalo in early August. The Arizona Diamondbacks, those astute bargain shoppers, made a run at Lee over the winter. But Indians general manager Mark Shapiro hung on to him under the theory that: (a) Excess pitching is never a bad thing and (b) it rarely makes sense to sell low.
So Lee remained in Cleveland, and now you can file him under "godsend." He bailed out the Indians early when C.C. Sabathia was in a funk, and the Tribe will continue to count on him now that Jake Westbrook is out with a rib injury.
AL pitchers who won their first four appearances and had sub-1.00 ERA in the last 20 years.
Year Pitcher ERA 2008 Cliff Lee (Indians) 0.28 1995 Tim Wakefield (Red Sox) 0.54 1992 Bill Krueger (Twins) 0.84 1991 Roger Clemens (Red Sox) 0.28
"One of Cliff's strengths has always been his toughness," Shapiro said. "At times he can be a little stubborn and resistant to change. But maybe he benefited and learned from the adversity he went through last year."
Lee worked hard on his conditioning in the offseason and came to camp in the best shape of his career. He's locating his fastball on both sides of the plate, down in the zone, and prompting more ground balls than usual. He has 29 strikeouts and two walks, which tells you all you need to know about his fastball command.
Carlos Quentin, OF, White Sox(.300 batting average, 1.040 OPS) After Baseball America ranked Quentin as the top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system in 2005, a chain of unfortunate developments brought him back to earth. Quentin hurt his shoulder and hamstring, and developed a reputation for compounding his problems by beating himself up mentally during the hard times. With Eric Byrnes, Chris Young and Justin Upton in the fold, Arizona GM Josh Byrnes felt secure enough in his team's outfield depth to trade both Quentin and prospect Carlos Gonzalez in the offseason.
Quentin hasn't dialed down the intensity in Chicago. He's been hit by a pitch six times -- tied for most in the majors -- and introduced himself to middle infielders with some ferocious takeout slides. He's also grinding out at-bats to the tune of 3.99 pitches per plate appearance, which makes him right at home in the suddenly more selective White Sox order.
"When I talk about the 'Chicago tough' type of player, that's part of the reason we got him," White Sox GM Kenny Williams said. "He has that same kind of 'go get it' attitude. When he slides into second base on a double play, you better get out of the way."
Milton Bradley, OF, Rangers(.305 batting average, .872 OPS) When Bradley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in September 2007, it was a stretch to envision him playing by April, much less hitting .316 and leading the Rangers in on-base percentage.
Bradley channeled his competitive fervor into his comeback, and Texas manager Ron Washington has made life easier by using him primarily at DH and mixing in regular rest breaks. The Rangers have plenty of issues, but lack of outfield depth isn't among them.
Bradley is hitting .750 (9-for-12) on 0-0 counts, so opponents might want to be careful with those first-pitch fastballs.
"Anytime he has a bat in his hands, he's dangerous," said an AL coach whose team faced the Rangers earlier this month.
Brad Lidge, RHP, Phillies(six saves, 0.00 ERA in 11 appearances) So much for the perception that Lidge's spikes would melt and his right arm would turn to cheesesteak upon arrival in mean old Philadelphia. Lidge's impressive start is rooted in some terrific pure stuff. His fastball comes in at 95-96 mph with sink, and the break on his slider makes it a challenge for righty and lefty hitters alike. When Phillies scouts checked out Lidge in September, they reported that he was borderline "unhittable."
Still, Lidge wouldn't have been available for a Michael Bourn-Geoff Geary-Mike Costanzo package if not for all that Albert Pujols-related baggage in Houston. He's a walking endorsement for the power of a fresh start.
"In many cases, when a guy struggles, he needs a change of scenery to regain confidence," Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said. "In the old environment -- no matter how positive you try to be or what the coaches and the managers say -- it's hard to get out of that rut."
Lidge will have to deal with the pressure of life in Philadelphia when he blows two saves in a row. But for now, this union is everything both sides hoped it would be.
Scott Olsen, LHP, Marlins(3-0, 2.06 ERA) When Mark Hendrickson has a 4-1 record and Jorge Cantu is flirting with .300, Olsen might not even qualify as the best comeback story on his own team.
That said, the kid has been through an awful lot at age 24. Notable low points include a drunk driving arrest and accompanying tasering when he resisted arrest, assorted run-ins with teammates and opponents, and an incident in Milwaukee last June in which he flipped the bird to Brewers fans. Olsen finished with a 5.81 ERA, the highest of any pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and missed two weeks in spring training while recovering from shoulder tendinitis.Cockiness comes naturally to Olsen, but he's not so blind in his brashness to tune out useful instruction. At the behest of pitching coach Mark Wiley, he's working with a quicker tempo instead of dawdling and boring his fielders to death.
Olsen has also worked on maintaining a more consistent "line" toward home plate, rather than falling off toward third base as he completes his delivery. That's resulted in better balance and a more consistent release point.
While Olsen's 13-13 strikeout-walk ratio is a bit of a red flag, he's motivated to prove that his horrific 2007 season was an aberration.
"I think he feels like that really wasn't him, so he's even more focused than normal," Wiley said. "He wants to prove to people the kind of pitcher he is."
Reed Johnson, OF, Cubs(.303 batting average, .382 on-base percentage) Johnson, who hit a soft .236 for Toronto in 2007, was fresh out of luck when the Blue Jays acquired Shannon Stewart near the end of spring training. Luckily, for him, a potential National League contender was paying close attention.
The Cubs' front office has some history with Johnson. Tim Wilken, Chicago's scouting director, was with Toronto when the Jays drafted Johnson out of Cal State-Fullerton in 1999. The Cubs were searching for a versatile, right-handed hitting outfielder after GM Jim Hendry tried and failed to acquire Marlon Byrd from Texas, and they had received positive reports on Johnson from scout Mark Servais in the Grapefruit League.
Johnson is a fundamentally sound player who gives manager Lou Piniella the luxury of spoon-feeding Felix Pie at-bats. He's moving around a lot better than last year, when he was recovering from back surgery, and he has a .382 on-base percentage. After getting hit by a pitch 80 times in his first five seasons, Johnson has already been plunked five times this month.
The Cubs are still talking about Johnson's sprawling, Kamikaze-style catch on the Nationals' Felipe Lopez last week in Washington.
"Unbelievable," Hendry said. "That thing was ESPY material."
Ervin Santana, RHP, Angels(4-0, 2.97 ERA) Santana, 7-14 with a 5.76 ERA last season, began his turnaround with a mechanical adjustment in September. He wasn't executing his hip turn in a way that allowed him to use his legs in his delivery, and pitching coach Mike Butcher worked diligently with him to correct the problem. Santana closed with a rush in 2007, and he hasn't looked back. Along with Joe Saunders, he's helped compensate for the loss of John Lackey and Kelvin Escobar and kept the Angels afloat in the AL West. A little selective memory loss doesn't hurt. After going 1-10 with an 8.38 ERA on the road last year, Santana is 3-0 with a 3.72 ERA in away games in April. That includes a 4-3 victory at Comerica Park, where his ERA was 15.26 entering this season. Santana is pounding the strike zone more consistently and doing a better job of keeping the ball in the park. After allowing 26 homers in 150 innings last year, he's given up three in 33 1/3 this season.
Emil Brown, OF, Athletics(tied for second in the majors with 25 RBIs) You can point to several positive developments in Oakland's surprisingly fast start. Dana Eveland, Chad Gaudin and Greg Smith have been terrific in the rotation, and Santiago Casilla and Andrew Brown are pitching shutout ball in the 'pen. Bobby Crosby is still on the field, and Frank Thomas looks invigorated just days after rejoining the team. That's a lot of good news to counterbalance the medical woes of Eric Chavez and Rich Harden. Emil Brown, 33, ranks right up there on the surprise meter. The Royals, who sported one of baseball's sorriest offenses in 2007, released him in December, and the A's signed him as a right-handed bat to help take the load off Travis Buck, Chris Denorfia and Ryan Sweeney. Brown's glove and baserunning will never win him any plaudits, but he's hitting .394 against left-handers while batting primarily in the No. 5 hole. That's pretty good value for a $1.4 million investment.
Eric Hinske, INF/OF, Rays(five homers, 13 RBIs in 70 at-bats) Hinske is having one eventful April. He picked up his 2007 World Series ring during a series with Boston, fell a single short of the cycle against Toronto, and has a .600 slugging percentage through his first 70 at-bats. Not bad for a guy who signed an $800,000 minor league contract in early February.
At age 30, Hinske will never live up to the promise he showed in 2002, when he hit 24 homers, drove in 84 runs and won the American League Rookie of the Year award in Toronto. But he has a career .807 OPS against right-handed pitching, and the Rays figured he could make a contribution off the bench.
"We made a real conscious effort this offseason to focus on the depth part of our roster," said Andrew Friedman, Tampa's executive VP for baseball operations. "In previous years when we've had injuries, we just haven't been able to bounce back from them."
With Gabe Gross just in from Milwaukee and Cliff Floyd working his way back from knee surgery, Rays manager Joe Maddon might have a tough time finding enough at-bats to go around. Considering where the Rays have been in so many previous years, that's a nice problem to have.Others of note: Joe Crede, 3B, and Gavin Floyd, RHP, White Sox; Randy Wolf, LHP, Padres; Sean Casey, 1B, Red Sox; Adam Kennedy, 2B, Cardinals; Gabe Kapler, OF, Brewers; Aquilino Lopez, RHP, Tigers; Clint Barmes, 2B, Rockies. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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