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Batting change would boost Angels

Ken Rosenthal has the latest news from around MLB.
Ken Rosenthal has the latest news from around MLB.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Angels manager Mike Scioscia already has dropped left fielder Mike Trout to the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

Might it be time for Scioscia to make a similar adjustment with right fielder Josh Hamilton?

The Angels are starting to roll, coming off their first sweep of the season against the Tigers. But on Sunday, the Angels’ No. 3 hitter, Albert Pujols, again received multiple intentional walks in front of Hamilton, who is batting .176 with a .570 OPS.

The Rangers issued three such walks to Pujols on April 6. The Tigers did it twice on Sunday — including with none on and two outs in the 12th inning, when Pujols represented the winning run.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland avoided Pujols to go left-left with reliever Phil Coke against Hamilton. Hamilton lined out, falling to 1-for-19 against left-handers this season. His career OPS against lefties is .796, compared with .955 against righties.

The Angels won the game, 4-3, on a walk-off home run by Mark Trumbo in the 13th inning. But it will be interesting to see whether Scioscia adjusts the middle of his order at some point, hitting Hamilton third and Pujols fourth rather than going right-left-right with Pujols, Hamilton and Trumbo.

Pujols wouldn’t necessarily squawk — 84.1 percent of his 6,982 career at-bats have been as a No. 3 hitter, but 12.9 percent were as a No. 4. The switch possibly could help Hamilton get going, enabling him to see better pitches in front of Pujols and behind Trout.

Earlier this season, when Trout was hitting leadoff, the Angels discussed internally the idea of hitting Hamilton second, between Trout and Pujols — a move that effectively would have accomplished the same thing as hitting Hamilton third now.

Trout’s speed makes him far less of a candidate for an intentional walk than Pujols. Hamilton also would be likely to see more fastballs if Trout was on base. Through 17 games, he is seeing only 44 percent fastballs, compared with 57.8 percent for Pujols and 59.4 percent for Trout.

Hamilton told me Friday that he actually feels great at the plate; he’s just not getting hits. His .222 batting average on balls in play would indicate that he is hitting into poor luck; the league average generally is around .300.

Of course, Hamilton also has struck out in more than one-third of his at-bats. But while he is swinging at more first pitches than any player in the majors, he pointed out — accurately — that he actually is extending at-bats more than he has in the past.

It’s early, but Hamilton is seeing 4.12 pitches per plate appearance, well above his average of 3.67 entering the season. He could get hot at any moment. But why not flip-flop him with Pujols, and help him along?

THE GREAT WHITE PIRATES

After 18 games, the Pirates rank only 10th in the NL in runs per game and only 11th in rotation ERA.

So, how have they gone 9-3 since their 1-5 start?

Credit the “The Shark Tank.”

The relievers, second in the majors with a 1.89 bullpen ERA, gave themselves that nickname after newcomer Mark Melancon tweeted a photo of a shark with the inscription, “Random fact: I have a Great White Shark named after me.”

The relievers ran with it, engaging in shark banter with each other — or, as closer Jason Grilli put it, saying, “all the stupid stuff like you do in the ‘pen, just to keep things light.”

“We’re all in there, we’re waiting to bite,” Grilli said by telephone Sunday night. “We’re hoping to pick each other up, seal a win, keep a game close.”

So far, it’s working — almost to a fault. The Pirates’ starters are averaging barely five innings per outing, fewest in the NL. That needs to change, or the relievers might collapse from exhaustion.

For now, though, the ‘pen is thriving even after losing two significant parts — closer Joel Hanrahan, who went to the Red Sox in the trade that brought Melancon to the Pirates, and right-hander Brad Lincoln, who went to the Blue Jays for outfielder Travis Snider last July 31.

The Lincoln deal was controversial at the time — some of the players thought it disrupted the team’s chemistry — but no one is complaining now. Snider is off to a hot start, and Lincoln opened the season in the minors. Likewise, Melancon has allowed only one run in 11 innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks, while Hanrahan currently is on the disabled list.

Grilli, meanwhile, is 7-for-7 in save opportunities, and has yet to allow a run.

“I’m the closer, yes,” Grilli said. “But I keep telling the guys, ‘You are all closers. Close the inning. Take the mentality that this is the game, right now.’”

The Pirates are surviving their difficult early schedule quite nicely. Their rotation could improve short-term when right-hander Charlie Morton and lefty Francisco Liriano come off the disabled list. Two of the game’s top pitching prospects, righties Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, eventually could join the club as well.

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Grilli said of the Pirates’ start, “It’s no surprise. We’ve had good first halves before. The identity hasn’t changed. Now it’s just growing up, going through the process of having a developing organization where they kept the core.

“Now it’s time to say, ‘This is the year to do something.’ It takes time. We’re not like the New York Yankees who can just put out star players and drop ‘em in every position. It’s been a process. The people we developed are becoming stars. There’s a different one every night.

“There’s something to be said about that kind of team.”

AND SPEAKING OF THE YANKEES …

Shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera are future first-ballot Hall of Famers, but it has become rather clear over the years that no Yankee is indispensable.

The team is just too good.

Go back to last season, when Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee. The Yankees, 13-11 heading into that game, went 80-56 the rest of the way.

Go back to 2003, when Jeter dislocated his shoulder in Toronto in the season opener. The Yankees went 25-11 with Erick Almonte and Enrique Wilson as their shortstops.

Now fast forward to this season. It’s not only Jeter that’s missing, but also first baseman Mark Teixeira, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and center fielder Curtis Granderson.

How are the Yankees doing it? Obviously general manager Brian Cashman hit on a number of the replacements — left fielder Vernon Wells, third baseman Kevin Youkilis, designated hitter Travis Hafner. And obviously the Yankees’ culture remains strong even with Jeter absent.

Still, when I asked a Yankees official to explain why the team endures major injuries so successfully, he gave a simple answer: “We always have a lot of great players.”

That theory is being tested this season — the Yankees probably have fewer great players on the field than at any point since the mid-1990s. But Rivera and second baseman Robinson Cano certainly fit that description, and the team’s top three starting pitchers — CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte — have combined for a 2.33 ERA in 73 1/3 innings.

ANGELS’ RICHARDS MAKING A CASE

Here are the average fastball velocities of the Angels’ original five starting pitchers this season, according to Fangraphs.com:

C.J. Wilson: 91.1 mph.
Tommy Hanson: 88.8.
Joe Blanton: 88.4.
Jason Vargas: 88.1.
Jered Weaver: 85.4.

Here is the average fastball velocity of right-hander Garrett Richards in his two starts since joining the rotation:

95.9 mph.

Hello? Am I missing something?

Richards, who threw seven shutout innings against the Tigers on Saturday, needs to remain in the rotation, even after Weaver returns from a fractured left elbow.

Angels GM Jerry Dipoto told me that with Vargas and Blanton, in particular, “you judge them over the course of time, trust in their track records.” That’s fair, but Richards’ stuff is too lively to be ignored.

Hanson remains a wild card — he threw six shutout innings against the Tigers on Friday night, but some in the Detroit clubhouse believed that Hanson was quite beatable and that their hitters simply had an off night.

AN IRON MAN WHO THINKS ABOUT IRONING

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder, who has missed only one game since the start of the 2009 season, takes great pride in his durability.

Fielder says that when he doesn’t play, he feels like he “left the iron on” in his house, becoming all worried — and yes, he says he actually does his own ironing.

Earlier in Fielder’s career, when he was with the Brewers, manager Ned Yost often would rest him, the way managers do to protect young players.

Fielder says he loved Yost and never protested, but that he couldn’t wait to get to the point in his career where managers wouldn’t rest him anymore.

The iron is off. He need not worry about that now.

DON’T FORGET NIESE

Rookie right-hander Matt Harvey is getting most of the attention in the Mets’ rotation, thanks to his 0.93 ERA after four starts. But Mets officials also believe that lefty Jonathan Niese has turned a corner, and is now evolving into a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Niese, 26, gained security by signing a five-year, $25.5195 million contract in April 2012. He then threw a career-high 190 1/3 innings, proving that he could stay strong an entire season. And he got married in January, taking another step toward maturing off the field.

Johan Santana’s season-ending shoulder injury left Niese as the leading veteran in the Mets’ rotation. The newfound position of responsibility, club officials say, seems to suit him well.

“LUCHO” LIBRE

One problem with the Angels’ top-heavy roster is their lack of experienced, reliable bench players. Granted, any team would suffer if it lost its starting shortstop, Erick Aybar, and third baseman, Alberto Callaspo. But the Angels have less positional depth than the division rival Athletics, a team with much smaller payroll.

Shortstop Andrew Romine is a 4A type. Infielder Brendan Harris and outfielder J.B. Shuck joined the Angels last offseason as minor-league free agents. Third baseman Luis “Lucho” Jimenez looks like the best of the group, with the chance to be a late bloomer. He has played outstanding defense and shows offensive potential.

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COVERING THE BASES

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“He has been a good spark for them,” one scout says. “I see him as an eventual super-utility type who can play all over. We will see how he reacts after the advance guys get a look at him — see if he can respond after pitchers adjust for the first time.”

AROUND THE HORN

• Remember the fuss when Mike Trout reported to spring training at 241 pounds, about 15 above his normal playing weight? It proved to be a non-story.

Trout lost the extra weight in the spring, and he remains one of the fastest players in the majors. His running times to first are 3.9-4.0 seconds — just what they were last season, according to both a rival scout and Angels third-base coach Dino Ebel.

The Angels clocked Trout at an absurd 3.53 on a bunt last May, but 3.9 is still well above-average.

• The Brewers’ seven-game winning streak coincides with their home-run surge over the same span.

The team, after hitting only five homers during its 2-8 start, has gone deep in every game of the streak, producing 13 homers in all.

The rotation also has improved (3.92 ERA in the past 11 games), as has the bullpen (1.33 ERA in the past nine).

• And finally, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera celebrated his 30th birthday with his Venezuelan teammates Thursday night in Anaheim at the home of Joaquin Benoit’s aunt and uncle, Rod and Rosie.

Benoit is from the Dominican, and Rosie and her friend Desiree prepared a Dominican feast of goat, rice and avocado. Victor Martinez said that the players sang "Happy Birthday" to Cabrera in both English and Spanish.

The players were still raving about the meal the day after.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Tigers, Brewers, Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, Pirates, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, Jason Grilli, Mark Teixeira, Joe Blanton, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Jason Vargas, Travis Snider, Brad Lincoln, Tommy Hanson, Mark Melancon, Mark Trumbo

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