- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We're two weeks into another wild and crazy baseball season. But who the heck knows what to believe and what not to believe.
So it's time once again to play America's most beloved mid-April game -- Reality or Illusion?
Marlins (11-1) -- REALITY: OK, they're not this good, or they would go 149-13. The skeptics keep pointing out that the Marlins have bullpen questions, defense issues and lots of strikeouts in that lineup. And as one scout reminded us, "Six of their 11 wins are against Washington." But that rotation? That's real. "Best rotation in the league," another scout said. "And there's so much upside beyond what they already are." A third scout's take: "I like the way they play with an attitude, like they have a chip on their shoulder and they always have something to prove."
Padres (9-4) -- ILLUSION: We'll say this: The Padres put a scrappy, fun little team out there. And it's tough to totally discount a club that has played three of its first four series against the Dodgers, Mets and Phillies. But after starting pitchers Jake Peavy, Chris Young and closer Heath Bell, this pitching staff is the All-Scrap Heap team. So how can this club possibly hold up? "When a dishwasher from the Outback Steakhouse (Outback alum Walter Silva) is starting Game No. 3 of the season, you don't have enough pitching," one scout said.
Indians (4-9) -- REALITY: The Indians might not score 22 runs in a game again for the rest of the century, but everybody agrees this team will put up many a crooked number. The bad news is it may have to. To believe in the Indians means trusting Carl Pavano, Fausto Carmona and Anthony Reyes, and projecting Cliff Lee to get back to near-Cy Young form. And that's tough to do. "I can't see their starting pitching holding up," an AL executive said, "and, in turn, that will crush their middle relief."
Royals (7-5) -- ILLUSION: Could the Royals be .500-ish? Sure. Why not? "They can at least be spoilers because their pitching is a lot better," one scout said. "But I'm not buying into that lineup." Agreed. This is a lineup with no true impact bats, and one that's now missing both Jose Guillen (torn groin muscle) and Alex Gordon (hip surgery). So to think the Royals can stay tied for first place while ranking last in the league in runs scored (just 55 in 12 games) is a stretch.
Mariners (8-5) -- REALITY: Don't misinterpret this "reality" label. The Mariners are on a 100-win pace, and that isn't happening. But remember this: No team in baseball underachieved more compared to its talent level than the 2008 Mariners. So, based on the law of averages alone, they could win 20 more games this year than the 61 they won last year. They probably don't have make-it-to-October upside, but scouts who have followed them like this team a little more than you'd expect. "They do have marquee players in Ichiro and [Adrian] Beltre," one scout said. "And I like their shortstop [Yuniesky Betancourt] a lot." They also have two ace-type arms in Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard and a potentially dominating closer (Brandon Morrow). "I've been predicting all spring that the Mariners will show the biggest positive win differential of any club in baseball this year," an AL exec said.
Angels (4-8) -- ILLUSION: This team is tricky to evaluate because its rotation has been obliterated by injury (John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Kelvim Escobar, Dustin Moseley) and tragedy (Nick Adenhart), and now Vlad Guerrero (pectoral tear) is out for at least a month. So if this is the team the Angels have to run out there, they're in trouble. But we all need to remember this almost certainly won't be their team for the next 5½ months. They could actually get all four of their starting pitchers back by early June. And if that's the case, and you stack them up against the rest of this division, they're still the favorite. "I'd still pick them to win it," one AL scout said. "Oakland is inconsistent. Texas has holes in its rotation. And Seattle is in recovery. So all [the Angels] have to do is hang on and let all the dust settle from the past few weeks."
Josh Johnson (2-0, 2.91 ERA, 21 K in 21 2/3 IP) -- REALITY: Meet the best pitcher in baseball you've probably never seen pitch. "That dude's a front-line aircraft carrier," one scout said. "A young John Smoltz," another said. "A stud," a third said. "A bona fide top-of-the-rotation starter that no one talks about," a drooling AL executive said. Get the picture?
Emilio Bonifacio (.321 AVG., 4 SB, league-leading 13 runs) -- ILLUSION: His 4-by-400-relay-anchor wheels -- they're real. The rest of his offensive repertoire -- not so real. Bonifacio is an electrifying player when he actually hits the ball. But "he's easier to pitch to than teams are making it look right now," one scout said. And here's the proof: He was hitting .485 as recently as Tuesday. He has gone 1-for-20 since with one walk and nine strikeouts.
Nelson Cruz (5 HR, 1.044 OPS) -- REALITY: Not everyone is sold on him. But there's more reality than illusion in a masher who plays in the friendliest home park in the American League (The Ballpark in Arlington). "He has power to all fields and should drive in runs in that lineup," one scout said. "Do I think he can hit 30 to 35 homers and drive in 85 to 95 runs? I do," another said. "But I also think they're going to have to live with the punchouts, because this guy is going to strike out a lot."
Chris Duncan (.381 AVG, .714 slugging percentage, 9 extra-base hits, just 7 singles) -- ILLUSION: Here's another guy who has flashed power so far. And Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will do his best to pick the right spots to play him. But we're talking about a one-dimensional player who slugged .365 just last season. So people will need to see a lot more of this to be sold. "He's a 'clank' in the outfield, and not hard to pitch to," one skeptical scout said.
Heath Bell (7 saves, 0.00 ERA, 6 2/3 IP, 2 H, 8 K) -- REALITY: Bell may not be a closer we would put in that Mariano Rivera-Joe Nathan-K-Rod-Brad Lidge stratosphere. But there's a lot to love about this guy, who has a blast every day, throws hard, challenges everybody and gets lots of swings and misses. "He's been a great set-up man, in a great pitchers' park, for the past two years," one front-office man said. "If George Sherrill can do it [in Baltimore], Heath Bell has much more ability."
Armando Galarraga (2-0, 0.68 ERA) -- REALITY: He'll never be an ace, and he'll never hang on to that sub-1.00 ERA. But "he's a definite double-digit win guy who's maturing as a pitcher," one scout said. "The more I see him, the more I think Texas [which dumped him a year ago] didn't know what they had."
Erik Bedard (1-1, 1.86 ERA, 19 1/3 IP, 23 K) -- REALITY: It's amazing how willing people were to write him off as a lost cause after last year. Biiig mistake. "People forget that this guy is only 30 years old and, prior to last season, was an elite power pitcher in the American League," one AL executive said. "Punching out 221 hitters in 182 innings [in 2007], while pitching in Camden Yards against the beasts of the East, is not a fluke. Look at his numbers last season when he was hurt -- a 3.67 ERA, fewer hits than innings, and close to a strikeout an inning. I expect a big season from him. Being a free agent doesn't hurt, either."
Derrek Lee (.217 AVG., 283 OBP, .348 slugging percentage) -- REALITY: We had a couple of "illusion" votes on Lee, but they didn't carry anywhere near the conviction of the people who think this man is fading. "This is a tough one, but Derrek Lee might really be slowing down," one front-office man said. "He's only 33 years old, but his power completely dropped off in the second half last year, as did his other numbers." Another variation of the same theme: "He really hasn't been the same guy since getting hurt [a broken wrist in 2006]."
Justin Upton (5-for-30, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 11 strikeouts) -- ILLUSION: One AL executive used Upton as his poster boy to prove that everything that happens this early is at least part illusion. Last year at this time, he was hitting .385 for the Diamondbacks with five homers and an 1.102 OPS before his space capsule returned to Earth. A year later, he's all messed up. But everybody we surveyed thinks that will change. "Young and trying to do too much. The talent is there," one scout said. "He'll hit," another said. "Too good of an athlete not to."
Roy Oswalt (0-2, 4.26, only 10 K in 19 IP) -- REALITY: After two messy starts, Oswalt threw six shutout innings against the Reds on Friday. But the baseball community no longer talks about him with anywhere near the reverence it used to. "He's definitely now more heart that stuff," one NL executive said. "I love him, but I think the arrow is pointing down. He used to have an overpowering fastball. Now it's not there. His curve is still a good pitch. But it's not a power strikeout pitch. He still has good enough stuff, but he lacks that put-away stuff he used to have."
Cliff Lee (1-2, 6.75 ERA, 16 IP, 32 baserunners) -- ILLUSION: Lee is an illusion, but in exactly the same sense that his Cy Young brilliance last year was also kind of an illusion. He isn't that good, and he isn't this bad, either. "Cliff Lee is going to come back to reality, to what he truly is," an NL executive said. "I don't think he's a Cy Young guy. But I don't think he's as bad as he was the year before, either." And an AL exec agreed, saying, "I'd expect him to perform like he did in the years pre-2007 -- good seasons, but not No. 1-starter-type seasons."
Chien-Ming Wang (0-3, 34.50 ERA, 6 IP, 23 hits) -- ILLUSION: We can just about guarantee that Wang's 2009 debacle is an illusion, if only because it would be impossible for him to be this bad all year. Wouldn't it? The Elias Sports Bureau reports he is only the second pitcher in modern history to kick off a season by giving up at least seven runs in three straight starts. And nobody has done it in four straight starts. So we're confident he can't keep this up. On the other hand, that's about all we're confident of. "His arm action says he's either fatigued or something's going on," one scout said. "He's pitching like a guy with a dead arm." Another scout said Wang's "lack of arm speed makes the sinker look like a humpback liner to a hitter." A third said, "They say he's healthy, but I don't buy that. He's got to be hurt."
David Ortiz (.170 AVG., 1 extra-base hit, 14 K, 8 hits) -- REALITY: Every scout we've talked to who has seen Ortiz is downright alarmed by his vanishing bat speed. "He's starting to go quick," one scout said. "His body is breaking down on him. He isn't even catching up to average fastballs, and he's not even driving the ball the other way. If he can't hit the fastball, they're going to eat him alive. I don't think he's going to be a .170 hitter. But he's not a guy who can carry a club -- not anymore."
B.J. Ryan (2 saves, 1 blown save, 7.71 ERA, 4 2/3 IP, 11 baserunners) -- REALITY: Ryan has been great for a long time, but he's into the David Copperfield stage of his career. And scouts who have followed him don't think he can trick those hitters for long. "His funkiness is no longer funky," one scout said. "His power stuff has no power. And everything is flat." Another scout speculates that Ryan has to be a physical wreck. "They say he's healthy, but he looks like his shoulder is killing him. He was terrible all spring, and he's kept right on that track. He throws his slider all the time because he knows he can't throw his fastball over the plate. And when he does, it's like batting practice."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Is the Marlins' fast start a realistic view of how their season will go? And is Derrek Lee's slow start an illusion? Jayson Stark wonders.