The regular season isn't even at the quarter pole yet, but you can be sure there will be plenty of turnarounds for teams similar to what the Yankees have experienced over the last nine days (or what the Giants accomplished after this point last year). On the other hand, there are holes dug that makes one wonder when and if they can be filled in.
The Cubs are only five games off the National League wild-card lead but are seemingly mired in some haunted house. "I'm asking my friends to pray for me," says Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, "because I must have done something terribly wrong. I can't believe all that's happened to us. We just have to battle through it, stay close and get our pitching together."
LaTroy Hawkins continues to be a huge disappointment for the Cubs.
Mark Prior and Kerry Wood both opened the season on the sidelines, and while Prior is rounding into form, Wood is on the disabled list with a bizarre bruise of the rotator cuff, something few doctors have ever seen. Nomar Garciaparra was the best player on the planet in spring training, went down with a torn groin muscle on April 20 and may not play again this season. Todd Walker got hurt as well, injuring his knee on April 10.
Joe Borowski was throwing well late in spring training but broke his right hand after getting hit by a line drive and hasn't pitched since. They wanted Ryan Dempster to open the season as their closer but forced him to become a starter again because of the injuries to Wood and Prior. And, finally, when Dempster went back to being the closer following the implosion of LaTroy Hawkins, he also got hit by a line drive.
All this, and Carlos Zambrano flew from Washington to Chicago on Sunday to have an MRI on his right elbow. "The trainers don't think it's serious," says Hendry. "But considering the way this season has gone ..."
After letting Moises Alou walk and being paralyzed while waiting to see whether they could move Sammy Sosa, the Cubs had to count on Garciaparra being a major part of their offense with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Without Borowski, they had to have the Prior-Wood-Zambrano-Greg Maddux foursome hold the staff together.
So while Hendry was leaving spring training trying to figure out what to add by using his deep farm system, now he's holding his shield to the blame being fired at manager Dusty Baker. With two frontline starters and an All-Star shortstop out and a bullpen in ruins, they're probably lucky to be four games under .500.
"They really miss the power at the corner outfield positions," says a rival GM. "But that's easy to say when pitching is their strength and it's offline (the Cubs starters' ERA after Sunday was 4.35, ninth-best in the NL)."
"But no matter how many injuries we've had, we're still a disappointment," says Hendry. So, in some ways, are the Devil Rays, until one considers their payroll. So are the Reds, although no one wins without pitching and defense. Seattle? Jeremy Reed and Adrian Beltre are going to get better, but it doesn't have the pitching to be a legitimate contender. Cleveland? No one in its lineup hit for a month.
But, yes, there are some other teams that have been serious disappointments:
• Philadelphia: OK, Jim Thome's back is bad, and that's another issue. But playing in the bandbox of Citizens Bank Park, how can this team be second-to-last in the National League in slugging percentage? How can they win with a leadoff hitter having a .282 on-base percentage?
It wasn't Larry Bowa's fault, so it can't be Charlie Manuel's fault either. And, thus, the only man left holding the evidence if this season doesn't turn around for the Phils is GM Eddie Wade; hence the Brian Cashman whispers have already started. This team has a $95 million payroll. Its farm system is so bad that as of Thursday their minor-league teams were a combined 48 games under .500. They produce Ryan Howard, keep him behind Thome and now have to deal with the knowledge that the Indians were seriously concerned about Thome's back holding up more than three years -- and this is the third year of the deal.
If the Phillies are out of contention at the All-Star break, what Wade does with free agents-to-be Billy Wagner and Placido Polanco may determine his future.
• Kansas City: Did anyone expect the Royals would contend? No, but this has been flat-out ugly. GM Allard Baird -- as Twins general manager Terry Ryan always did in the dark days of the Twins -- blamed himself, but when manager Tony Pena resigned last Tuesday, he's now trying to set his course with this team.
The Royals have pretty good young arms. They hope center fielder David DeJesus, shortstop Angel Berroa, third baseman Mark Teahen and catcher John Buck develop and that Baird can get some corner prospects in trade deadline deals for available veterans like Mike Sweeney and Jeremy Affeldt. Sweeney's contract and risky health make him difficult to move, but if the Dodgers lose patience with Hee Seop Choi, that's a remote possibility; the Rangers are looking for another bat and Sweeney would be a tremendous fit in the middle of that young, talented lineup.
Baird, meanwhile, is beginning the managerial search process. "We have two groups," says Baird, "one with experience, one without. But I think we may need someone who has managed in the big leagues, because when we have a chance to win games, we can't let them get away."
Gene Lamont seems to be one of the leading names along with Bowa, Jerry Narron and Jim Fregosi, but Baird says that if he doesn't find the right man, "I can wait until the end of the year. [Interim manager] Bob Schaefer has brought a lot of energy, he is a great teacher and would love to manage, so we'd be comfortable with him the remainder of the year. We'll see."
Remember, Lamont has strong ties to the Royals organization, was considered by his peers a superior manager in Chicago and Pittsburgh and is now the manager for the Phillies' Triple-A team (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre).
• Colorado: Granted, GM Dan O'Dowd never thought they were a contender, but while youngsters like Clint Barmes have played well and they are on a clear course, there is no answer to the question, can they ever win a mile above sea level in Coors Lite Park?
Remember, this franchise has never won more than 84 games. "We need athletic outfielders who hit for power and cover ground," says O'Dowd. "We need players who can persevere through the long, tough games."
But as left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis continues to pitch for the Rockies after a minor-league career that stamped him one of the elite pitching prospects, after seeing him throw 34 pitches in the first inning of a recent game -- when he's a command guy -- makes one wonder how he'll be two years from now. Right-hander Jason Jennings, who is as tough as they come and with a sinker seemingly made for Coors, now sees his walk rates constantly climb and will be one of the players -- along with Preston Wilson, Shawn Chacon and some others -- O'Dowd tries to use to get more future foundation players.
Mike Hampton had a marvelous career temporarily run off the tracks trying to pitch in Denver. John Thomson was a good pitcher run down by Colorado and is a good pitcher again. Darryl Kile was a classic example. Kile, Kevin Ritz, Hampton and Jamey Wright all threw 200 innings as Rockies and were not the same pitchers there.
Pedro Astacio threw 637 innings for the Rockies from 1998-2000 and has never been the same.
"It may be that no pitcher will ever be more than average because of that park," says one executive. "Maybe the thing to do is trade Francis for a B.J. Upton or some athletic potential star (like Hanley Ramirez or Felix Pie), build a great team and use veteran starting pitchers."
• Oakland: While third baseman Eric Chavez struggles along, the A's have lost two of their best young players, shortstop Bobby Crosby and right fielder Nick Swisher. Now, pitchers Rich Harden, Kiko Calero and Dan Meyer (who overdid it with a tubing exercise, got a tired arm, never showed his normal velocity in spring training and is now resting to try to get restored) are hurt. There will be no blame placed on manager Ken Macha.
"We just are having one of those years," says GM Billy Beane. There is little Beane can do except wait and see if there are suitors for Octavio Dotel, Scott Hatteberg or the Crash Test Dummy, Eric Byrnes. (Forget Mark Kotsay, who can opt for free agency at the end of the year, because Beane wants to sign him to an extension.)
And, no, the A's have no interest in bringing back Jason Giambi. Beane wants to get infielder Dan Johnson, last year's Pacific Coast League MVP, up to the majors and into the club's lineup.
• Houston: Whether Roger Clemens ends up with the Yankees by July 31 will replace the Barry Bonds updates as tedium to the nth degree. What the league's weakest offense can do to draw attention someplace other than Roger is a question that's difficult to answer. Meanwhile, Jeff Bagwell's arthritic shoulder -- the same as those of his father and grandfather -- is so bad he's told that he eventually will need a shoulder transplant. It would be silly for Bagwell to volunteer to get out of his contract, because the team owes him the money and has insurance on the contract.
If this is it for Bagwell, he will move on to Cooperstown in 2011. He is one of 17 players with 1,500 runs scored, 1,500 RBI and a career .900 OPS; with the research of the esteemed Rob Tracy of the Elias Sports Bureau, I can note that of those 17 players, Bagwell is ninth in OPS.
Also thanks to Tracy and Elias, if one uses the accepted complex OPS (three parts on base to two parts slugging, according to the bartenders' manual), Bagwell is 12th all-time behind Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Frank Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb and Mel Ott. (Albert Pujols doesn't quality, but if he did he would sit in front of Thomas).
The problem with a possible trade of Clemens to the Yankees is that if he continues to limit his market to one team, why would that team -- thin in prospects to begin with -- deal two prime prospects, even for the greatest living pitcher on the planet?