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Friday, April 22, 2005
Updated: April 26, 11:05 AM ET
Losing their zip on reality

By Peter Gammons
Special to

April 22

Drawing conclusions three weeks into the season is comparable to declaring a president based on the first two exit polls. Are home runs and slugging down? Yes. Due to steroid testing? Let's wait.

The more salient topic of conversation thus far has been the inconsistent fastball. Oh, when Randy Johnson is 90-93 mph in his first four starts, no one panics. It is his first April in cold weather and the Unit is expected to get back up over 95 mph. Mike Mussina has been in the 86-88 mph funk in April the last couple of years, and no one seems overly concerned that Jason Schmidt was down in the low 90s. Check back in June.

There are starters who are up as well. Last season, Pedro Martinez's norm was to throw 88-89 in the first inning or two then build up to 92. But since the first inning of his first start in Cincinnati, when Adam Dunn hit a three-run homer, Martinez has sat at 95 mph with his best and most consistent stuff since 1999 when he should have been the MVP. Kevin Millwood and Jamey Wright have been touching 95 for the first time in years.

"There were a lot of weather issues at the end of spring training in Florida, and it set a lot of pitchers back farther than they realized," one advance scout said. "They can throw all the minor league and simulated games they want, it's not the same as facing major league hitters."

Tim Worrell
The Phillies' Tim Worrell has blown two saves this season.

However, relievers are another matter. "Middle relief is a problem all across baseball," one NL general manager said Wednesday. "I don't know if it's related to the testing or what, but we're not getting the mid-90s guys in the sixth and seventh innings that we used to."

The save percentages have drifted from 52 percent to 60 percent (the latter as of April 22) in the opening weeks, down from 68-70 percent last season. Joel Sherman of the New York Post asked similar questions and got essentially the same answers – that an odd finish to spring training, the restrictions on "supplements," the wear on relievers and historic inconsistencies related to the position have all accounted for the early woes.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies believe they have found closers in Brandon Lyon and Chin-hui Tsao, respectively, but their middle men have blown five and six save opportunities, respectively. Texas has blown five. Oakland (two saves, three blown), Detroit (zero saves, four blown), Florida (zero saves, one blown), Milwaukee (one save, two blown) and the Mets (one save, three blown) have more blown saves than saves. Armando Benitez has been in the low 90s, likely from a lack of early work. Mariano Rivera has gone through similar stages. Keith Foulke, as well.

The Yankees are not worried about Rivera, even after his pitching for seven months 10 straight seasons. But they are worried about getting to Rivera, as Tom Gordon isn't throwing the way he did until mid-September last year. As Tanyon Sturtze rode in off the claim wire in 2004, the Yankees have brought in Buddy Groom and before the season is over they might try Chien-Ming Wang, who had a very impressive spring training. Scott Proctor is also in the equation.

"Relievers are so inconsistent from year to year that it's unfair to throw the 'supplements' thing at every guy who is down in velocity," an AL GM said. "One year a guy is throwing 94-95, the next 89-91. It happens throughout the industry. What happens is that most teams open the season with their bullpens aligned based on the previous year's results. It usually takes a couple of months to realign it."

It's already happening in Arizona, for instance, where Greg Aquino, Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal could not hack the innings leading up to Lyon. Brian Bruney is now beginning to take hold of the eighth inning, and Mike Koplove of the seventh. The Mets, Washington, Florida, Houston and several other teams will tinker for the first two months to try to uncover the next Brendan Donnelly, or for that matter, Lyon.

One problem that contenders will have is that Bud Selig's revenue sharing has succeeded, which means that where four years ago there were 15-18 teams that knew they were into next year in late July, this season it's possible that the only teams that may have run up the 2006 white flags on July 31 are the Rockies, Brewers, Pirates, Devil Rays, Royals and perhaps a couple of other surprise teams. "There aren't going to be many legitimate relievers available," one GM said, "and the price is going to be ridiculously high. You may be able to get Octavio Dotel from Oakland, but Billy Beane is going to want to extract a high price. Tampa Bay is going to want another Scott Kazmir for Danys Baez. Jose Mesa the same."

Some of the bullpen situations will be solved, some will not. "When it gets to October," a GM said, "you'd better have your bullpen solved, because you're not going to win without it."

News and notes
• The Diamondbacks made their final offer to Stephen Drew and agent Scott Boras last week, and while Drew signed on with the Atlantic League nearly a month ago, the feeling is that he will take the offer before the draft. Even if Drew signs, the D-Backs will take Justin Upton with the first pick in the draft, as scouting director Mike Rizzo said he believes Upton is a franchise player with character and the strong family roots. The D-Backs might have a top shortstop prospect in Sergio Santos, but Rizzo knows players like Upton come along thrice in 20 years – Junior Griffey and Alex Rodriguez the others – and the Pirates will never fully recover from drafting Bryan Bullington instead of B.J. Upton. One GM predicts that after Justin Upton, the next five picks will be Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon to Kansas City, Tennessee right-hander Luke Hochevar to Seattle, Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to Washington, Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to Milwaukee and Fullerton State left-hander Ricky Romero to Toronto.

A.J. Burnett certainly is the top free agent starting pitcher come November, but one could argue that before Tim Wakefield signed Tuesday he was right behind Brad Penny and aside Matt Morris as the most attractive potential free agent because of his durability and reliability. But Wakefield signed a one year, $4 million deal with incentives and club options in perpetuity because he wants to remain in Boston, where he is in his 11th year (Roger Clemens and Bob Stanley, who pitched 13 years for Boston, are the only pitchers who remained longer). It was a great signing for the Red Sox – they have Wakefield and David Wells on performance contracts. But while the Players' Association may believe comfort and happiness is irrelevant, Wakefield did what he wanted to do, and soon C.C. Sabathia, who would be a top free agent after the 2006 season, will begin working on an extension because of his belief in what the Indians are building. For some perspective: Sabathia won't be 25 until July. He has 54 career wins. The next highest total for any pitcher under 25? Jake Peavy has 33.

• Speaking of reliability, Mark Buehrle may well be the most underappreciated great pitcher in the game. Thursday was the 32nd straight start in which he completed at least six innings; the last pitcher to do that was Curt Schilling, who went a minimum of six innings in 39 straight starts in 2001-2003, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

• Dan O'Dowd says he hasn't talked to the Orioles at any time about Todd Helton. Now, if the Rockies' season gets long and Helton becomes uncomfortable, there may be discussions, but he controls when and where he goes and the contract is an issue. But that's a way off. One can be certain that Preston Wilson will be moved at some point, and that several teams will try to pry away one of Colorado's starters come the end of July. Good news: Chin-hui Tsao hit 100 on the radar gun closing out Tuesday's win for Jeff Francis.

• Penny hit 97 mph and sat at 94-96 in his final rehab start in Las Vegas. Kelvim Escobar – the Angels' best and most consistent starter in '04 – showed he was ready in his final rehab appearance and Wade Miller is inching closer to Boston. In his last rehab start, Miller got up to 93 mph and sat at 91-92, although his Kinston opponents felt he was far from dominant. To take pressure off Miller's shoulder, Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace has tried to smooth Miller's delivery so that he directs to the plate and isn't so pronounced throwing across his body. "It's worked well," Miller said. "There's less stress, my slider and curveball are fine & the one thing that's different is that I don't have as much movement down in the zone. So I have to try to pitch more like Curt Schilling, commanding both sides of the plate down on the corners." Speaking of command, three of Boston's top prospects – RHP Jon Papelbon (Portland), reliever Cla Meredith (Portland) and RHP Anibal Sanchez (Wilmington) – began the season with no walks and 45 strikeouts in their first 35 innings.

• Credit John Hart with what early returns show to be one of the best free agent signings in Pedro Astacio, who in his first three starts allowed four runs in 22 innings. Astacio has come up with a nasty fastball that runs across the inside corner against lefties, and as Buck Showalter points out, "because he survived so well at Coors [he pitched 200 innings there three times, no one else did it twice], he is perfect for our park. He has the perfect makeup for a hitters' park."

• Kevin Towers welcomes the arrival of Sandy Alderson as Padres CEO, because Alderson is not a bean counter and has been in the GM seat. The questions will be this year's performance and the farm system, which reportedly hasn't pleased owner John Moores.

• Let me get this right: Gary Sheffield reached into the stands and wasn't disciplined, but Ron Jackson was suspended because umpire Greg Gibson thought he could read his lips. Good. Gibson is the one who should be suspended for incompetence and a loss of control that set off the crowd and led to the Sheffield incident. What a joke.

Some observations
• "John Patterson is on the brink of being a dominant starter," said an opposing manager. "It's amazing how far he's come back."

• Many in the Toronto organization say they believe that the discipline rookie shortstop Russ Adams is displaying will put him in the leadoff spot come June, where he could stay for a long while.

• Matt Murton, the outfielder the Cubs got from Boston in the Nomar Garciaparra deal, is hitting .490 in Double-A. If I were the Devil Dogs, I'd offer Julio Lugo for Murton, but they're too worried about who uses what men's room.

• One NL GM watched the Angels' Double-A club and said, "they have frontline prospects everywhere." Ervin Santana: 3-0, 0.47 ERA.

• The Mets believe Victor Diaz is going to be a big-time producer, which will eventually make Mike Cameron available.