- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Boston manager Terry Francona is not a big believer in spring training conventional wisdom. How reliable can it be when the writers and reporters who disseminate the storylines spend half their time obsessing over dinner plans in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues?
"I spend zero energy looking to see what the conventional wisdom is," Francona said. "It would be a waste of time to match up our team to what everybody wants us to be."
It's not so much a case of "wanting" as making assumptions based on Hot Stove activity and meaningless games in March. When the Red Sox spent the entire winter loading up on pitching and defense, "run prevention" was destined to become a predominant theme at Fenway Park in 2010.
And when the Milwaukee Brewers spent $35 million on veteran lefties Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, they expected to upgrade a starting contingent that ranked 29th in the majors with a 5.37 ERA in 2009. Almost two months into the season, Milwaukee's starters rank 27th in the majors with an ERA of 4.95. So much for that game plan.
"You can't take anything from spring training, except for guys getting in shape and hoping nobody gets injured," an American League scout said. "That's it."
In this week's edition of Starting 9, we look at nine scenarios that appeared to be etched in stone when the equipment trucks rolled out of Florida and Arizona. In light of recent plot twists, maybe they should have been scrawled in wet cement.
The conventional wisdom in March: Roy Halladay spent 12 seasons in Toronto, made six All-Star teams and finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting five times. He also served as a beacon of professionalism with his work ethic and approach to the game.
"No matter what team Roy Halladay is on, if you had him, you're going to miss him," said Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "You'll miss the ERA, the innings, all those things. He sets an example that's second to none."
The Blue Jays went 75-87 with Halladay in the rotation a year ago. When he took his 17 wins and 239 innings to Philadelphia, lots of observers figured a 95-loss season was right around the corner for Toronto.
The reality in May: The Blue Jays are a surprising 27-21, in large part because Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero are a combined 8-2 with sub-3.00 ERAs. Toronto is second in the league with 27 quality starts, and Romero, Marcum, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil have all taken no-hitters into the sixth inning.
The Jays considered replacing Halladay with a veteran innings-eater, and they kicked the tires on Jarrod Washburn and Jon Garland in free agency. In the end, they decided to take a more cost-efficient approach and help the young pitchers by beefing up the catching and the bullpen. John Buck, Jose Molina and Kevin Gregg will make a combined $5.15 million this season, and they've all had a positive impact.
Meanwhile, Brian Tallet, Jesse Litsch and Marc Rzepczynski are on injury rehab and Brad Mills is pitching well for Triple-A Las Vegas, so the Jays have some potential reinforcements if the kids wear down as the season progresses.
Life without Joe
The conventional wisdom in March: Joe Nathan led the majors with 246 saves from 2004 through 2009, so it was a big deal when he blew out his elbow. Heath Bell trade rumors abounded for a week or two, and the Twins considered shifting Francisco Liriano to the role and doing the closer-by-committee thing before anointing journeyman Jon Rauch as Nathan's replacement. Some observers (like, uh, me) thought the loss of Nathan would open the door for the pitching-rich White Sox in the AL Central.
The reality in May: Opposing hitters swing and miss 21 percent of the time against Rauch. That puts him in the middle of the pack among relievers, in the same neighborhood with Oakland's Brad Ziegler, Arizona's Juan Gutierrez and Minnesota teammate Matt Guerrier. But Rauch has converted 10 of 12 save opportunities, and he has a strikeout-walk ratio of 13-3. Pitching to contact is a blueprint for success when you're playing in front of a defense that's made nine errors all season.
Guerrier, rookie Alex Burnett and lefty Brian Duensing have lined up nicely in front of Rauch, and the Twins' bullpen has held up well in the early going. After Minnesota rallied to take a 6-3 lead at Yankee Stadium on May 16, Rauch struck out Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira to close out the game in the ninth. That had to be a confidence booster.
"It doesn't hurt that they're head-and-shoulders above the competition in that division," an AL assistant GM said. "If you're going to go deep into the playoffs, you want that dominant guy, and it's hard to say Rauch is that guy. Maybe they'll make a deal in the second half, but that's not their style. They usually don't do the July thing."
How about those Padres?
The conventional wisdom in March: It was only natural that Adrian Gonzalez trade talk dominated the conversation in San Diego in spring training. He's a prized commodity, and it made sense for general manager Jed Hoyer to survey the landscape. Even in a wide-open NL West, the Padres were the consensus pick to finish last.
The reality in May: It's hard to see the Padres maintaining their strong early play unless they find a way to get more help for Gonzalez. Chase Headley had "wingman" written all over him in April, but he's tailed off in May. Gonzalez ranks second to Albert Pujols among major league hitters with 10 intentional walks. Look for that total to keep climbing.
Two positive signs: The Padres have a run differential of plus-45, second best in the National League. They're also 14-9 on the road, so their staff isn't just a Petco Park mirage. Young Mat Latos, in particular, is earning rave reviews throughout the league.
As usual, manager Bud Black is getting some nice work out of his bullpen. Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson and Edward Mujica were all acquired by former GM Kevin Towers, who has a long-standing reputation as the best in the game at scoping out affordable, productive bullpen arms.
The Angels' big DH upgrade (not)
The conventional wisdom in March: As the 2009 season progressed, scouts wondered how Vladimir Guerrero had skipped his twilight years and gone straight to "decrepit." He looked old, tired and in danger of fading into irrelevance before his 35th birthday.
When the Angels signed Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $6.5 million deal in December, it appeared to be a significant upgrade. Bobby Abreu brought a welcome dose of plate discipline from New York, and Matsui figured to do the same for the Angels. He certainly looked spry going 8-for-13 against Philadelphia and winning the World Series MVP award.
The reality in May: Guerrero, like Andruw Jones, Marlon Byrd and others, has found new life in Texas. He leads designated hitters in home runs (12), batting average (.347), OPS (.974), hits (61) and RBIs (42). Barring a major drop-off, he's positioned himself for an all-expenses-paid trip back to Anaheim for the All-Star Game.
"Two things were obvious when we visited him over the winter," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said in an e-mail. "He was in much better shape -- he had dropped 10 or so pounds and his legs felt good. And he was driven to prove wrong those that doubted him. That's played out on the field so far too. He's running well, has been aggressive on the bases, and he's been great on the club."
The Angels wish they could say the same for Matsui. Since raising his batting average to .310 in late April, the artist formerly known as Godzilla is in a 14-for-85 funk. Matsui has been pulling off a ton of pitches, and he's rarely hit the ball with authority.
"I think he's still bothered by those leg injuries," a scout said of Matsui, who's had a history of knee trouble. "But his stroke is too good for him to lose it this fast. I think he'll still be there in the end."
Are the Angels willing to wait that long? When catcher Jeff Mathis returns from a fractured wrist, manager Mike Scioscia has the option of plugging Mike Napoli into the DH role. If Matsui wants to hang onto his spot, he'd better pick up the pace soon.
Beltway baseball, upside-down
The conventional wisdom in March: The Washington Nationals finished with a run differential of minus-164 last season, and they had to close with a rush to go 59-103. The big winter pitching additions were Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez and Matt Capps, and the team released right fielder Elijah Dukes two weeks before the season opener with no viable alternative on the roster. Can you say "train wreck"?
The Baltimore Orioles, in contrast, entered the season with a smidge of optimism. With the addition of veteran Kevin Millwood to the rotation, a new closer in Mike Gonzalez, a rookie of the year candidate in pitcher Brian Matusz and the continued development of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, they figured to be better than the 64-98 aggregate of a year ago.
The reality in May: As Memorial Day approaches, the Nationals are a respectable 23-23. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham have a combined 25 homers in the middle of the order, Pudge Rodriguez looked invigorated before going down with a back injury, and Capps (16-of-17 in save opportunities) and Tyler Clippard have solidified the bullpen. Reliever Drew Storen recently arrived from Triple-A Syracuse, and the countdown to Stephen Strasburg-mania has officially begun.
"They might lose 85 games, but their days of losing 95-100 are behind them," a National League executive said. "Matt Capps has been huge for that team. Having a good closer might be overrated. But that was one of the reasons they lost all those games the last couple of years. They just got killed in the late innings."
The Orioles have been a disaster from the opening week, when Gonzalez blew two saves to put the team in an early hole. The loss of second baseman Brian Roberts to the disabled list has been a killer: Manager Dave Trembley has used eight players in the leadoff spot, and the Orioles rank 10th in the league with a .318 on-base percentage at leadoff. Ty Wigginton can only do so much to carry the offense.
"They have no bullpen," an AL scout said, "and they don't have that big banger in the order. With the personnel they have right now, I'm not sure if it matters who manages them as far as wins and losses go."
Those run-preventing Red Sox
The conventional wisdom in March: General manager Theo Epstein's offseason moves took the Boston roster in a new direction. When the Red Sox signed free-agent position players Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, it was designed to upgrade the defense. And pitcher John Lackey's new five-year, $82.5 million deal added a huge cog to one of baseball's best rotations.
The big question among casual baseball observers was whether Boston's offense would produce to recent standards. Beltre hit eight homers in 449 at-bats last year, and Cameron turned 37 in January. David Ortiz's diminished bat speed was a steady topic of conversation all spring, and a terrible April helped perpetuate the notion that he was finished.
The reality in May: The Red Sox rank 11th among the 14 AL teams in Bill James' "runs saved" category, and Beltre and Scutaro have combined for 13 errors on the left side of the infield. Boston's starters rank ninth in the league with a 4.54 ERA, and it's been left to Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to pick up the slack left by injuries and/or ineffectiveness from Josh Beckett, Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
On a positive note, the Sox are second to the Yankees in the American League with a .797 OPS. The angrier Ortiz gets, the more punishment he inflicts.
The mediocre pitching and defense numbers look like an aberration. Now that Jacoby Ellsbury and Cameron are off the disabled list, Boston's outfield defense should improve drastically. And if Lackey's ERA is still above 5.00 and Beckett's is above 7.00 come August, that'll really be a scoop.
"We came into this thing thinking that our pitching has a chance to really be good," Francona said. "We have to be a little more consistent, but we haven't bailed on that philosophy."
The Dodgers, not so pitching-impaired
The conventional wisdom in March: The Dodgers failed to land Cliff Lee at the July trade deadline last year, and they were innocent bystanders for most of the Hot Stove season. After Randy Wolf left for Milwaukee via free agency in December, the Dodgers waited until late January to sign Vicente Padilla as their No. 4 starter.
On April 5, Padilla yielded two home runs to Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones in an 11-5 loss. No offense to Padilla, but he ranked closer to Bob Miller, Chan Ho Park and Brad Penny than Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton in the pantheon of distinguished Dodgers Opening Day starters.
The reality in May: Hiroki Kuroda carried the rotation in April, but he's getting lots of help in May. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley have kicked it in gear, and the Dodgers are getting a big lift from rookie John Ely, who was acquired from the White Sox in the Juan Pierre trade.
Billingsley has benefited from throwing more fastballs and fewer cutters, and Kershaw, who just turned 22 in March, is doing a more proficient job of throwing strikes.
"The only pitcher I can recall who's gone from the minors to the ace of the staff is [Tim] Lincecum," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "Everybody else takes some time to develop. By all rights, this Opening Day should have been Kershaw's first day in the big leagues. We fast-tracked him out of need."
Ely, a Miami of Ohio product, was the 119th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was on his way to a 14-2 record for Chicago's Double-A Birmingham club when Dodgers scouts Toney Howell and Dennis Moeller wrote up positive reports on him. Ely's fastball tops out in the high 80s, but he brings a lot of energy to the park, whether he's high-fiving teammates or jumping over the foul line. Dodgers broadcaster Charley Steiner refers to Ely as "Mark Fidrych lite."
"He doesn't throw 95 or 96, but he knows how to pitch," Colletti said. "He competes, and he's willing to adapt the second and third time through the order and make adjustments. You don't go 14-2 anyplace without having some degree of know-how."
While Roy Oswalt would look great in a Dodgers uniform, L.A. might have to settle for Padilla's return from a forearm injury in mid-June. This time, he'll be more of a back-end guy. Padilla is on a one-year deal, so he has the carrot of free agency to keep him motivated down the stretch. That never hurts.
The "new and improved" Hanley?
The conventional wisdom in March: Hanley Ramirez's teammates noticed a major change upon his arrival at spring training. He was working harder in the batting cage and the weight room, encouraging the younger players in camp and making a sincere effort to be a team player.
An ESPN.com story in late March (written by, uh, me) quoted several Marlins raving about Ramirez's new grown-up approach and commitment to the cause.
"Hanley's one of those guys who's so good, sometimes they can get by with how good they are," Marlins infielder Wes Helms said. "But now I think he's matured and it's made him realize, 'Hey, I need to work and be that team guy so that we can win.'"
The reality in May: As last week's little jog-a-thon and spat with manager Fredi Gonzalez showed, Ramirez is always a snit away from calling attention to himself in a less-than-flattering light. He's one of the best players in the game, at a premium position, so the Marlins might just have to live with the whole high-maintenance-diva thing.
"He may never grow up. But I don't care -- I'd take him," a National League executive said. "I think it affects his play at shortstop more than his hitting. He's so talented offensively, he doesn't even need to try. In the field, there are balls he should get to that he doesn't."
Tigers, Tigers, burning bright
The conventional wisdom in March: When the season began, the Tigers' bullpen was iffy and the offense looked mediocre at best. But manager Jim Leyland and his staff were upbeat about the starting rotation, even with the departure of Edwin Jackson to Arizona. There aren't many top-3s with better stuff than Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer.
The reality in May: Scherzer made eight starts before the Tigers packed him off to Triple-A Toledo for a refresher course. Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis have been up and down, Porcello posted an ERA of 8.03 in April, and Detroit's starters have pitched the fewest innings of any staff in the American League.
Oh yeah -- the Tigers have also committed a major-league-high 37 errors.
So how are the Tigers breathing down the Twins' necks in the Central? Start with the bullpen. Closer Jose Valverde hasn't allowed a run since April 7, and Joel Zumaya reeled off 23 straight strikeouts to begin the season before issuing his first walk.
First baseman Miguel Cabrera has that MVP glow about him, and the Tigers are getting lots of mileage out of old-timers Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez and rookie outfielders Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch. Boesch, rated Detroit's No. 25 prospect by Baseball America, ripped off nine doubles, two triples, four homers and 21 RBIs during a recent 21-day stretch.
"The jury is still out," an AL scout said. "But he's probably the brightest of any of their prospects in terms of makeup and brains. He's off the charts."
From the Blue Jays without Roy Halladay to the Padres' current place in the standings, March's conventional wisdom has turned out to be far from May's realistic picture.