It’s way too early to pass any judgments – the sample sizes are not just small, they’re infinitesimal. Still, if one thing stands out after three games, it’s the potential of certain offenses to be wrecking balls this season.
Some, obviously, are more legitimate than others:
RANGERS: Their three-game totals against the Red Sox – 26 runs, 11 homers, 21 extra-base hits – were nothing short of staggering. And that was with outfielder Josh Hamilton going a mere 3 for 11 with no homers.
The big thing with the Rangers will be staying healthy – Hamilton, second baseman Ian Kinsler and right fielder Nelson Cruz are not exactly pillars of durability. Still, the addition of catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and conversion of infielder Michael Young into a super-utility man make the Rangers even more versatile and deep.
Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz, who allowed only nine homers all last season, gave up four to the Rangers on Sunday. Kinsler and Cruz are the first teammates to each hit three in their first three games. Yikes.
YANKEES: Their opening series against the Tigers was an early indicator of how the Yankees’ offense and bullpen can help mask the deficiencies in their rotation.
Right-hander A.J. Burnett was just OK on Saturday, allowing three runs in five innings, but the Yankees won 10-6. Righty Phil Hughes’ diminished velocity officially became a concern on Sunday, and the Yankees still made a game of it, falling 10-7.
They’ve already hit nine homers, three by first baseman Mark Teixeira, who has exceeded his total from last April.
PHILLIES: Not as impressed here.
A scout who attended the Phillies’ three-game sweep of the Astros noted that the Houston staff demonstrated poor command all weekend. The scout also was critical of the Astros’ defense, citing center fielder Michael Bourn and right fielder Hunter Pence as the only fielders with good range.
Still, the Phillies are encouraged by the start of right fielder Ben Francisco, who is 6 for 13 with a homer. Francisco is showing improvement in using the whole field, as preached by Phils manager — and hitting guru — Charlie Manuel.
WHITE SOX: They evidently grew arm-weary Sunday, losing to right-hander Justin Masterson and the Indians 7-1 after scoring 23 runs in their first two games.
The Indians were not much of a test, but the early signs from three pivotal White Sox hitters – right fielder Carlos Quentin, second baseman Gordon Beckham and rookie third baseman Brent Morel – were all good.
The White Sox, seventh in the AL in runs last season, could move into the top five with the addition of designated hitter Adam Dunn.
REDS: They led the NL in runs last season, but again, their initial eruption might be more about the competition than the reincarnation of the Big Red Machine.
The Brewers had pitching issues all weekend – a blown save by closer John Axford in the opener, then poor starts by righty Shaun Marcum and lefty Randy Wolf.
Impressive start, though, by Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs, who could prove a dynamic leadoff hitter if he can improve his .329 on-base percentage from last season.
BLUE JAYS: Here they come again, even without center fielder Vernon Wells, first baseman Lyle Overbay and catcher John Buck.
If there’s one thing the Blue Jays do well it’s hit homers. They had seven in their opening series against the Twins, including two by right fielder Jose Bautista.
Still, it’s difficult to take some of this stuff seriously. Twins lefty Francisco Liriano gave up two homers to the Jays after allowing just nine all of last season. Third baseman Jayson Nix and catcher Jose Molina were the hitters who took him deep. Really.
When I texted Yankees general manager Brian Cashman during Saturday’s broadcast and asked if he wanted to clarify or add to his earlier remarks on lefty Pedro Feliciano, he responded, “No – was asked if his workload the last few years was an issue and I answered.”
Fair enough, but Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen had a fitting reaction upon learning that Cashman called the Mets’ handling of Feliciano “abusive.”
“They didn’t know that when they signed him?” Warthen asked.
Feliciano, 34, appeared in 266 games from 2008 to ’10, the most in the majors by a significant margin. But to open the season – surprise! – he is on the disabled list with a left rotator cuff strain.
Cashman rationalized the Yankees’ signing of Feliciano to a two-year, $8 million free-agent contract by citing the “thin market” for left-handed relievers. But a scout from a rival club – not the Mets – was stunned by the GM’s remarks.
The scout, an admirer of Cashman’s, sent me an email on Saturday night, unsolicited.
“Does Cash remember the use by Torre of Paul Quantrill, Scott Proctor and many others with NO concern about their usage?” the scout asked. “Where was Cash then?”
Well, Torre was the manager, and Cashman surely cringed at the way certain relievers were handled – the GM had to find replacements to clean up each mess.
Cashman is nothing if not honest, but he might have been better off answering the question about Feliciano by saying, “The Mets used him hard. We knew it. We took the chance. Buyer beware.”
Some notes that didn’t make it on air Saturday:
When I asked A-Rod about his hip in spring training, he advised me to call his surgeon, Dr. Marc Philippon. Well, Philippon gave a glowing report, saying that A-Rod’s hip rotation is better now than it ever has been, enabling him to generate more power.
A-Rod, Philipon said, had an impingement in his hip even when he was younger.
“He didn’t have a normal, smooth rotation because of the way he was, but he was able to overpower (the ball) because of his strength,” Philippon said.
“Now, with the correction, he has a very strong base for his rotation. His muscles work with less effort and provide him with more power. There is more congruency between the ball and socket.”
Here’s yet another reason the Tigers’ Victor Martinez is universally regarded as a great teammate.
Early in spring training, Martinez took Alex Avila and six of the Tigers’ minor league catchers to dinner at a Brazilian-style steakhouse.
Avila says Martinez wanted to get to know the younger catchers and also thank them for all their hard work catching one bullpen session after another.
Three teams – the Tigers, White Sox and Orioles – all were in the same range for Martinez during free agency: Four years, $48 million, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations.
The Tigers, though, came at Martinez the hardest, almost as if he was a college recruit.
The team, of course, has several other Venezuelan players – Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen. In the end, Martinez felt he belonged in Detroit. When the Tigers raised their offer to four years, $50 million, the deal was done.
A number of teams, including the always-creative Rays, approached right-hander Brad Penny about becoming a closer during the offseason.
Penny preferred to remain a starter and signed a one-year, $3 million free-agent contract with the Tigers. He did not fare well against the Yankees on Saturday, allowing eight runs in 4 1/3 innings. But a strong season could put him in position to land a better deal next winter, when he will still be only 33.
O’S FOR REAL?
The Orioles’ three-game sweep in Tampa Bay might have been more of a reflection on the Rays, who went 3 for 19 with runners in scoring position and scored only three runs in three games.
Still, the Orioles are now 37-23 under Buck Showalter, a .616 winning percentage in 60 games. During that time, their staff ERA is 3.41, their rotation ERA 3.01.
Is it Showalter? Players taking more responsibility? An indictment of previous manager Dave Trembley and his staff? Probably all of the above.
But right-hander Jeremy Guthrie was brilliant against the Rays, righty Chris Tillman threw six no-hit innings and lefty Zach Britton made an impressive major-league debut.
As one scout said, “Talk to me on May 15.” Fair enough. But the impressive starts of the Orioles and Blue Jays are further testament to the depth of the AL East.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Ichiro is easy to take for granted; he is a baseball metronome, cranking out 200-plus hits every season.
Yet, it’s impossible to ignore what he achieved Saturday night, becoming the Mariners’ all-time hit leader with a ninth-inning single that scored the go-ahead run in the M’s 5-2 victory over the Athletics.
Ichiro’s 2,248th hit – he recorded 2,249 on Sunday – enabled him to pass Edgar Martinez, who was a pretty fair hitter himself. Martinez, though, had a career batting average of “only” .312. Ichiro’s career mark, as he begins his 11th major league season, is .331.
He turns 38 in October, and his offense, defense and baserunning remain elite.
A scout who saw Belt at the University of Texas recalls him using an extreme crouch and extremely closed stance.
“I made the statement that I thought this kid was the best hitter in my area with the worst approach,” the scout says.
The Giants, after selecting Belt in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, asked him to try a more upright, open stance – hit like a player who is 6-foot-5 rather than 5-foot-5, the scout said.
Less than two years later, the results are evident. Belt, who turns 23 on April 20, looked quite comfortable in his first weekend with the Giants – he went 2 for 13, but with a three-run homer off Dodgers righty Chad Billingsley and four walks, one with the bases loaded. And, as the scout points out, he is a good defender and baserunner, too.
TROUBLE IN CLEVELAND
Cleveland’s Progressive Field was a happening place in the late 1990s. The Indians’ streak of 455 consecutive sellouts seemingly distanced the franchise from its days at cavernous, empty Municipal Stadium.
But now history is repeating.
The Indians were last in the majors in home attendance last season. And over the weekend, they drew the two smallest crowds since opening Progressive Field in ‘94 – 9,853 on Saturday and 8,726 on Sunday.
Weather was an issue; the temperatures were in the 40s with a threat of rain both days. But the Indians’ problems go beyond uncomfortable April afternoons.
The franchise’s 90-win seasons in 2005 and ’07 did not provide as big a boost in revenue as the Indians expected. The city and surrounding region lost population and affluence during the economic downturn. And the team’s trades of CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee alienated many fans.
The Indians, in making those deals, were trying to avoid a long-term collapse. They preferred prospects to the draft picks they would have received if they had lost Sabathia and Co. to free agency. But the trades so far have yielded little, and years of bad drafts haven’t helped.
Here’s the scary part: Even if the Indians ultimately get it right on the baseball and business side, the market still could prove problematic. Building a new ballpark is not an answer. The Indians already play in one of the best.
AROUND THE HORN
Here’s another way of looking at Wade Davis’ new, four-year, $12.6 million contract with the Rays that includes three club options, two of which in his first two years of free agency.
While some agents loathe giving teams club options, especially on free-agent years, Davis has only one-plus years of service. He effectively would have been on one-year options for the next five years if he had not signed the deal – and without the $12.6 million guarantee.
That guarantee, by the way, is the largest ever for a pitcher in Davis’ service class, beating Brett Anderson’s four-year, $12.5 million deal with the A’s.
So much for left-hander Jaime Garcia’s 6.26 ERA in spring training. Garcia shut out the Padres on four hits Sunday, helping settle a Cardinals team that showed cracks in its defense and bullpen in its opening series.
One scout’s brutal assessment of shortstop Ryan Theriot: “Can’t move.”
And finally, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter led the majors in groundball percentage last season at 79.1 percent. His new, stride-less approach is not yet helping.
In his first three games, Jeter’s groundball percentage was 90 percent – nine grounders, one flyball. He went 2 for 10, and one of his hits was of the infield variety.