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MLB's first week tells us plenty
Baseball people often say it is “too early” to draw conclusions in April. That is true. But at some point — usually when teams begin firing managers — “too early” becomes “too late.” The changeover arrives abruptly, particularly if you are the newly deposed skipper.
In this — the season’s inaugural “Behind the Seams” column on FOXSports.com — we won’t be firing any managers. (Not even metaphorically.) We will, however, draw your attention to several key developments from the first full weekend of baseball.
The goal: We don’t want you to be surprised when the calendar flips from Too Early to Too Late.
The Red Sox have enough talent to contend in the American League East.
It’s time to put away the hazmat suits at Fenway Park. The cleanup from the Great Collapse of 2011 is complete. The Red Sox have regained likeability among their own fans — which feels almost as significant as making it back to the postseason.
Boston is 4-2 and atop the American League East, which is less important than why John Farrell’s team is there. The Red Sox won series at Yankee Stadium and Rogers Centre — a good week, even with the Yankees in their diminished state — while displaying the grinder’s ethic they lost sometime after their most recent world title in 2007.
Sunday, Boston smacked Toronto, 13-0, even without the injured David Ortiz and Stephen Drew. Promising left fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. hasn’t settled in yet, and first baseman Mike Napoli is batting .179. So, imagine how good this lineup could be a couple months from now. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are catalyzing the offense again, and Will Middlebrooks — beginning his first full season as a big leaguer — socked three homers Sunday.
Most encouraging, though, have been the early signs from Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Lester has a 1.50 ERA and wins in his first two starts. Buchholz won his season debut by allowing one earned run over seven innings against the Yankees. Together, they can elevate an otherwise slightly above average team into the postseason for the first time since 2009.
One concern: John Lackey, just back from Tommy John surgery, exited Saturday’s season debut with a right biceps strain. The Red Sox don’t know yet how long he could be unavailable.
The Angels are under pressure already.
Remember how the Angels started slowly last year, only to call up Mike Trout in late April and watch him (almost) will them into the postseason?
Last year’s Angels were 2-4 after six games.
This year’s Angels are 2-4 after six games.
Six games don’t constitute a “slow start.” There is little shame in losing road series to the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers, as the current Angels have done. Even better, the Angels have three games with the Houston Astros at the end of their upcoming homestand. (If you cheer/work/play for the Angels, please finish the column before texting YESSSSSS! FREE WINS to your friends.)
But as you’ve probably heard, Josh Hamilton has done a lot of swinging and missing lately. To be more specific, the April ’13 Hamilton is making the April ’12 Albert Pujols look like the July ’12 Trout.
Hamilton is 4-for-25 with one extra-base hit and two RBI in six games, although that includes three hits in Sunday’s 7-3 loss to his former team in Arlington.
Maybe Hamilton ended the slump during that last game in Texas. The Angels had better hope so, because (a) Hamilton is famously streaky and (b) they can ill afford another disappointing April. And the Angels may need to win some 8-6 and 7-5 games in the near future, with ace Jered Weaver leaving Sunday’s start with a strained left elbow just as his right (pitching) arm was showing an alarming decrease in velocity.
Chris Davis didn’t learn to hit last week.
Yes, Davis just staged one of the greatest season-opening hitting displays in baseball history: 16 RBI through four games and 17 RBI through five. Each was the most in Major League Baseball at those benchmarks since at least 1921, according to research by STATS LLC.
Davis hit four home runs in Baltimore’s first four games, which had happened only 29 other times in MLB history, also per STATS LLC. (Chris Shelton hit five home runs in the Tigers’ first four games of the 2006 season . . . and was back in the minors that July.)
However Davis’ season turns out, it’s inaccurate to say he (or his power) came out of nowhere. Davis hit 33 homers for the postseason-bound Orioles last season and then played in all six playoff games. At the very least, the 27-year-old Texan is showing he can hold down an everyday job in the major leagues. For now, that role is at first base; he’s played designated hitter, third base and the corner outfield spots before.
Orioles general manager Dan Duquette did identify one new development with Davis’ approach early this season: He’s more willing to hit the ball to the opposite (left) field.
The Uptons are quite comfortable with the hype, thank you.
Expectations follow any high-profile acquisitions, but the scrutiny multiplies when those stars arrive in the same year, to a team with World Series potential, in a major market not far from where they grew up . . .
And, you know, they happen to be brothers.
But if anyone doubted whether B.J. and Justin Upton are ready to deliver for the Braves, well, there was Saturday night at Turner Field. Down a run in the ninth inning, B.J. belted the tying home run to center off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol. Two batters later, Justin delivered the game winner off the same pitcher, at nearly the same distance.
It was the first time brothers had hit the tying and winning homers in the same inning of a major league game, according to STATS LLC and the SABR home run log. So, let’s not be jaded about this: All baseball fans, particularly those with sports-loving siblings, could cheer for that . . . with, of course, the notable exception of Cubs fans. (To you, I extend my condolences — and not just for this.)
Meanwhile, the Braves are 5-1 and atop the NL East. Aside from Freddie Freeman’s public protest at being placed on the disabled list with an oblique injury, the post-Chipper era is off to an encouraging start. This could be the year in which left-handed starter Mike Minor (7-1/3 innings, one earned run in his season debut) blossoms into an All-Star.
R.A. Dickey is 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA.
So, why did I highlight Dickey and not Cole Hamels, Matt Harrison, David Price, Matt Cain, or the popular dissection subject Roy Halladay? They have early ERAs above 8.00, too.
Well, Dickey is the only member of that group who moved from the National League to American League before this season.
And Dickey isn’t merely adjusting to the superior offensive league. He’s going from a pitcher-friendly ballpark to a hitter’s haven, in the least comfortable division for a pitcher (AL East), as the ace of a Toronto team that carries postseason expectations at minimum.
As the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Dickey’s track record suggests he’ll return to form eventually. But eventually might not be good enough. If the ’13 Blue Jays learned anything from the ’12 Angels, ’12 Marlins and ’11 Red Sox — their forebears as Hot Stove champions — it is that poor Aprils can prove lethal in September.
The Blue Jays probably are talented enough to make the playoffs if Dickey or Buehrle has a disappointing season — but not both, particularly with former ace Ricky Romero becoming a minor-league project. For now, at least, Dickey faces more questions than Buehrle: Can his knuckleball work at the climate-controlled Rogers Centre? Is this year’s increased walk rate an early season anomaly or byproduct of deeper AL lineups? Can he have success over a full season as an American League starter?
I believe in Dickey, but the Blue Jays are on an urgent timetable in 2013.
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