Ugly start usually means ugly finish

Originally Published: April 12, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

They tell themselves it's early. It has to be early. There's a foot and a half of snow on the field in Cleveland. Jimmy Rollins has outhomered the Giants. Kirk Saarloos has been in more games than the Mariners.

But here's the bad news for the Phillies, the Giants and the Nationals:

It ain't that early.

It's late enough that Rumblings and Grumblings is declaring those teams to be already officially in trouble anyway.

The Giants and Phillies started this season 1-6. They don't even want to know that just one team in the last 30 years -- the 1995 Reds -- made the playoffs after a 1-6 start, and no team has made the World Series after a 1-6 start since 1948.

And then we have those bumbling, stumbling Nationals. They're now 1-8 for the year. And the heck with the postseason precedents. Of the 37 teams since World War II to get off to that awful a start, only four even recovered to make it back to .500.

So there's a clear moral to that story: Ugly starts like this almost always turn into ugly seasons. Or at least really, really disappointing seasons. So it might be early if you're merely studying the calendar. But for all three of those teams, the danger signs are flashing. Just take a look:

Geriatric Giants can't find the plate

San Francisco Giants Problem No. 1: Age
By the end of this month, there won't be one every-day player in this lineup under 32, and their two best players (Barry Bonds and Omar Vizquel) will be in their 40s. "Just an aging, station-to-station ball club," said one scout.

Problem No. 2: Offense
Not once in the 50 seasons since the Giants moved to San Francisco have they scored fewer runs than the 20 they've managed in their first nine games. How about these numbers, through Wednesday: Team batting average .232. Team on-base percentage .289. Team slugging percentage .307. Versus left-handed pitchers: .130/.259/.174. Runners in scoring position: .214 average, with no extra-base hits. Late and close: .179 average, with one RBI.

Problem No. 3: The ace
Granted, it's a little early to pronounce judgment on Barry Zito's mind-warping seven-year, $126 million jackpot. But in Zito's first start, he got just six swings and misses in 86 pitches. In his second start, it was only seven swings and misses in 100 pitches. Which might explain why one scout said this week: "Barry Zito was the single worst signing of the winter. He's just not a top-of-the-rotation guy anymore."

There ought to be enough starting pitching here to prevent this season from gurgling totally down the plumbing system. But we're so used to this team finding a way to contend, it was startling to hear one AL executive say this week: "Outside of a couple of pitchers, there's not much I like about the Giants."

Floodgates opening with bullpen door

Philadelphia Phillies Problem No. 1: The bullpen
OPS against this crew before its two shutout innings Wednesday: .949, worst of any pen in the National League. And those three crushing blown saves last week might not be an aberration if you stack the stuff of this group up against the other bullpens in the league. "They've only got one power arm out there [Tom Gordon], and he's 39 years old," said one scout. "What happens if, or when, he goes down? I think they're in huge trouble."

Problem No. 2: Situational hitting
Offense is supposed to be this team's strength. But when you hit .179 with men in scoring position, you're just asking for the kind of disaster that has ensued. "We've had unacceptable offensive production," said assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "Unacceptable. We've had opportunities to break games open, and we haven't done it. And by not scoring more runs, we're putting more pressure on our relievers, because they've had no margin for error. Then we blow a couple of saves, and everything just snowballs."

Problem No. 3: Dumb baseball
They've run into big outs, rushed through at-bats with men on base and had all kinds of inexplicable defensive issues. Which was exactly what wasn't supposed to happen after they overhauled half the coaching staff. "A big part of this blame has to sit on the players' shoulders," Amaro said. "These are players who have played in the big leagues for a while now. They've got to know when to take the extra base and when not to. They've got to know when to swing at a 2-and-0 pitch and when not to."

If you've followed this team, you know the two things you can count on every April are Easter egg hunts and another April debacle by the Phillies. They've now started 2-6, or worse, in three of the last four years. But while they found ways to get back into contention the previous two times, that's a precarious tightrope to walk this year, when the Braves and Mets appear 100 percent for real.

"We'd better get it going," Amaro said. "Or we're going to find ourselves selling suntan lotion in September."

Nationals' crisis

Washington Nationals Problems 1 through 25: Talent
And by that we mean: There sure isn't enough of it. This entire starting rotation won two games last year. Yeah, two. The lineup features nobody who hit 25 homers last season. And once you get past Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Brian Schneider, the rest of the roster is "just a bunch of extra players," said one scout.

"I've been watching that team, just to see if we might want to [trade] for someone when they start selling," said one front-office man. "I still haven't come up with that someone."

We're not sure how many games this team is going to lose. 100? 110? 118? But wherever they end up, the Nationals already have done something that's just about impossible:

Over their first nine games, 714 hitters marched up to home plate. Not one of them stepped into the box while the Nationals held a lead. (The only time they led in the one game they won, remember, was the moment the winning run crossed the plate in the ninth inning.) That's gotta be a record that will never be broken.

Triviality
Alex Rodriguez is one of three active players who have hit at least 30 homers in every season since 1998. Can you name the other two? (Answer later.)


Hammerin' Hank Rumblings

Hank Aaron did his best to convince his pals at "Cold Pizza" that he won't be attending Barry Bonds' 756th homer because he doesn't want to blot out "the sunshine" for "whoever it is" breaks his record. But we all know this has nothing to do with sunshine. Our friends on the memorabilia circuit tell us Aaron has been dodging any and all links to Bonds for years now. Aaron has had numerous opportunities to cash in on jointly signing balls, bats, photos and other collectibles with Bonds. But "he just doesn't want to be part of anything with Bonds," one memorabilia connoisseur tells us. We've poked around elsewhere to survey some of Aaron's old friends on this. And it's clear they're not buying Aaron's alibi that he has a prior commitments to (ahem) go skiing in Europe while Bonds is making history. "If he's going to Europe," laughs one friend, "it's because his wife is dragging him there to go eat."

Zambrano Rumblings

Carlos Zambrano
Now that Cubs GM Jim Hendry has signaled that the Carlos Zambrano negotiations will resume one of these days, you might as well scratch Zambrano off your list of 2007 free agents. Indications are that the two sides have all but agreed to a deal that will pay Zambrano $80-85 million over the next five years. Bet you didn't know that only two starting pitchers this close to free agency ever have gotten five-year contracts (or longer) without actually filing -- Roy Oswalt in 2006 (5 years, $73 million) and Pedro Martinez in 1998 (6 years, $75 million).

We're not counting Chris Carpenter's new "five-year," $63.5-million deal with the Cardinals on that list, by the way. That's because the team essentially just added three years and $44.5 million to the two seasons, and $19 million, Carpenter had left on his previous contract. But Carpenter's elbow issues are causing major buzzing about whether it's safe to commit major dollars to any starter for five years. One AL front-office man on Zambrano: "To me, he's not a very stable guy to commit to. But if the Cubs don't do it, I guarantee you the Mets will pay him $25-30 million more than the Cubs are willing to pay. Omar [Minaya] loves that guy."

Meteorological Rumblings

Let's get this straight. There's only one real solution to baseball's April weather nightmare: more global warming, not less. Either that or throwing a retractable dome over about 12 states. But there's no other foolproof way for baseball to navigate through its worst weather month without risking meteorological peril. So starting the season in the South, in the West and in domes won't guarantee anything. History has proven that. So you can't blame MLB for scheduling the Indians to play at home on April 6. What you can question is why they're playing a team from Seattle. "I'm not going to deny that having Seattle play in the east doesn't make sense," MLB's scheduling guru, Katy Feeney, admits.

So what MLB is looking at in the future is to have teams in cold-weather cities play their out-of-division games in April against teams that are at least nearby. That way, if a game does get weathered out, it wouldn't require a 2,500-mile commute to make it up on an off day. But it's harder to commit to that than it looks, Feeney says. The trouble is that every year's schedule has to be different -- "and every change has a ripple effect on the rest of the schedule. So sometimes, when you look at the overall schedule, you cringe and hope for the best." Nevertheless, baseball has to anticipate these potential weather fiascos and change its April schedule priorities. If it doesn't, it deserves all the grief it takes.

In the meantime, you're probably going to see a couple of games on the Indians' and Mariners' current schedule get moved around, because that's the only way they can make up these four games. The Indians are balking, as they should, at playing any "home" games in Seattle. And most of the teams' common days off occur in the middle of somebody's homestand. So a couple of Monday games likely will get moved to Thursday, or vice-versa, to create more openings. But no matter how this gets figured out, both of these clubs are going to have their depth, and patience, tested by this ordeal far more than they deserve.

Oh, and don't read anything into this. But more people showed up for the Indians' first game in Milwaukee (19,031) than attended six Brewers games in Milwaukee last April. Maybe they were hoping Willie Mays Hayes would show up.

Bullpen Acquisition Rumblings

Lots of clubs already are poking around for bullpen upgrades, but the shelves have never seemed emptier. The Diamondbacks would talk about Juan Cruz. The Brewers still would deal Jose Capellan for a big return. The Orioles would move Todd Williams, who pitched his way out of their pen this spring. And the well-traveled J.D. Durbin is back on the waiver wire, for the third time this month. But here's one name you can scratch off the list (for now, at least): Brad Lidge.

Matsuzaka Rumblings

Daisuke Matsuzaka
It's time for our Dice-K scouting report of the week. "If [Jason] Varitek has trouble catching him, because the ball moves so much, you know the hitters have their work cut out trying to hit him," says one scout. "He doesn't have any pattern. He has all that movement. And he throws so many different pitches with command. This guy is farther along in his first year in the big leagues than [Hideo] Nomo was. He has a much better arm, for one thing. And he has a chance to have more staying power, because he doesn't have all the gyrations Nomo had in his delivery. So this guy is going to win a lot of games, and he's going to have a huge impact."

Rays Rumblings

One scout's review of the Devil Rays: "If we were holding a track meet instead of a season, they might lead the league." But as seductive as some of Tampa Bay's athletes might look from afar, they haven't figured out all the nuances of actually playing baseball yet. Total walks for Delmon Young, B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli combined this year, through Wednesday: only four, in 81 plate appearances. And that's after a spring training in which manager Joe Maddon imposed mandatory count-working on his young hitters for two weeks.

April Rumblings

When players like Texas' Ian Kinsler get off to hot starts, you always wonder if that's reality or just April. But one NL executive says: "I'm voting 'reality' on him. I have no doubts that guy can swing the bat." … Early favorite to collect a Comeback Player of the Year trophy: KC's revived Zack Greinke. "As long as he maintains focus and his desire to pitch," says one scout, "he'll be a No. 1 starter. With his stuff, there's no reason he can't be a big winner."

Records Rumblings

If a baseball record falls in the forest and we don't have a record book handy to look it up, did it actually happen? That's a question many of us amateur historians have been kicking around this spring, in light of the Sporting News' decision not to publish its annual record book. Well, the good news is, there's hope, on three fronts: (1) The best, not to mention the official, record book will be out there in print any day now. The Elias Sports Bureau's invaluable "Book of Baseball Records" is available at elias.com for $19.95. (2) Our friends from SABR have just released a tremendous contribution to our library options, with the "SABR Baseball List & Records Book," for sale in bookstores everywhere at $17.95. And (3) the Sporting News' Steve Gietschier reports that TSN hopes to make its book available online at sportingnews.com, even though it won't be available in print. Details forthcoming. So if we miss any records toppling this year, it's our fault, not the paper it's not being printed on.

Triviality Answer
Manny Ramirez and Carlos Delgado.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com