Three strikes: Quarter point surprises and duds

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Strike 1: The calm before the Strasburg

The Nationals have been one of baseball’s feel-good stories so far.

Stephen Strasburg is expected to make his major-league debut next month.
Stephen Strasburg is expected to make his major-league debut next month.

Their 38-year-old catcher, Pudge Rodriguez, is hitting .333 and earning accolades for his positive influence. Their who-knows-how-old bargain starter, Livan Hernandez, has been one of the NL’s best pitchers (1.46 in 49 1/3 innings). The defense, whose poor play resulted in 28 unearned runs at this point last season, has improved enough to allow only 10 unearned runs so far. And even after a five-game losing streak, Washington was 20-20 and owned the majors’ best turnaround from this point last season (when it was 12-28).

And Stephen Strasburg still is scheduled to arrive early next month.

Let’s hope he does. If he isn’t in the majors soon, the already "out of whack" expectations — as described by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo — will be such that Strasburg will have to throw a no-hitter in his first game to live up to them. And if his debut comes against the Pirates, a no-no might not be enough.

The Strasburg hype is reaching LeBron James-to-the-NBA proportions. "Good comparison," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman admits.

The Nationals are trying to temper the anticipation. They protect Strasburg from the media, and Rizzo insists they are thinking about the big picture. "I have developed players in the past and that’s why I got the job," Rizzo says. "I feel comfortable with his developmental schedule. It’s best for him long-term."

The club, meanwhile, goes about its business. Manager Jim Riggleman says "I never hear Stephen’s name come up" in the clubhouse "except when we get some reports when he pitches."

But when the Nationals hear the reports, it’s difficult even for them to not get excited. "You hear about guys who throw hard and all that and once they get here, it’s 91 to 93 and they’re a regular righthanded pitcher," Zimmerman says. "He’s definitely different. He’s really the first person I’ve ever seen who’s had a lot of hype and actually lives up to it."

That analysis was based on spring training and the minors. The countdown to the majors continues.

Strike 2: Early-season disappointments

With the season at the quarter mark, the biggest flops:

Aramis Ramirez has struggled at the plate.
Aramis Ramirez has struggled at the plate.

Mariners’ offense. The pitching — third in the AL — is about as good as advertised. The offense — last in the AL — is even worse than expected. Six regulars were hitting .220 or lower before Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays. Ken Griffey Jr.’s bat shows no signs of waking up, either. He has one hit since the nap story broke.

Red Sox’s pitching. Having the AL’s worst ERA (4.94) isn’t what general manager Theo Epstein had in mind when he talked about an even greater emphasis on defense and pitching. He has to be wondering a bit about Josh Beckett’s contract extension, too. Beckett has been so bad (7.29 ERA) that the team actually had to be a bit relieved when an injury (back stiffness) was found.

Cubs. Their pitching hasn’t been terrible (4.27 ERA) and their offense ranks in the top five in the NL, but something isn’t right. Look no further than three of Chicago’s highest-paid players — Derrek Lee (.674 OPS), Aramis Ramirez (.527 OPS) and Carlos Zambrano, who has been a flop in the bullpen (5.59 ERA) and the rotation (7.45).

Matt Holliday’s hitting. His .289 average and .357 on-base percentage aren’t terrible, but Holliday is sixth on his own club in RBIs. That isn’t the kind of Albert Pujols protection the Cardinals were projecting when they re-signed Holliday for $121 million. He was moved into the 3 hole ahead of Pujols this week.

Andre Ethier’s broken pinkie. Ethier wasn’t likely to win the Triple Crown. But it would have been nice to see him healthy for a full season to give it a go.

Strike 3: Early-season surprises

The Rays. What should scare opponents about their major league-leading record: Their offense hasn’t clicked yet. Ben Zobrist (no homers after hitting 27 last season), Carlos Pena (.191 batting average) and B.J. Upton (.217) figure to get hot at some point.

Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson as a starter. The converted reliever had a rough outing Tuesday when he allowed seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Angels. Until then, Wilson had given up only eight earned runs total in seven starts.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins. You know he loves seeing his name above Joe Mauer’s among the batting average leaders. What is really impressive: Morneau leads the AL in OBP (.482) and slugging (.694).

The Padres. Their pitching has been the best in the NL, and three scouts in the past week have told me it is legit. Too bad their offense isn’t.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Rockies. A no-hitter, a 7-1 record and a 1.12 ERA. Memo to Tim Lincecum: You have more new competition than Roy Halladay for the NL Cy Young award.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Strike 1: The calm before the Strasburg

The Nationals have been one of baseball’s feel-good stories so far.

Stephen Strasburg is expected to make his major-league debut next month.
Stephen Strasburg is expected to make his major-league debut next month.

Their 38-year-old catcher, Pudge Rodriguez, is hitting .333 and earning accolades for his positive influence. Their who-knows-how-old bargain starter, Livan Hernandez, has been one of the NL’s best pitchers (1.46 in 49 1/3 innings). The defense, whose poor play resulted in 28 unearned runs at this point last season, has improved enough to allow only 10 unearned runs so far. And even after a five-game losing streak, Washington was 20-20 and owned the majors’ best turnaround from this point last season (when it was 12-28).

And Stephen Strasburg still is scheduled to arrive early next month.

Let’s hope he does. If he isn’t in the majors soon, the already "out of whack" expectations — as described by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo — will be such that Strasburg will have to throw a no-hitter in his first game to live up to them. And if his debut comes against the Pirates, a no-no might not be enough.

The Strasburg hype is reaching LeBron James-to-the-NBA proportions. "Good comparison," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman admits.

The Nationals are trying to temper the anticipation. They protect Strasburg from the media, and Rizzo insists they are thinking about the big picture. "I have developed players in the past and that’s why I got the job," Rizzo says. "I feel comfortable with his developmental schedule. It’s best for him long-term."

The club, meanwhile, goes about its business. Manager Jim Riggleman says "I never hear Stephen’s name come up" in the clubhouse "except when we get some reports when he pitches."

But when the Nationals hear the reports, it’s difficult even for them to not get excited. "You hear about guys who throw hard and all that and once they get here, it’s 91 to 93 and they’re a regular righthanded pitcher," Zimmerman says. "He’s definitely different. He’s really the first person I’ve ever seen who’s had a lot of hype and actually lives up to it."

That analysis was based on spring training and the minors. The countdown to the majors continues.

Strike 2: Early-season disappointments

With the season at the quarter mark, the biggest flops:

Aramis Ramirez has struggled at the plate.
Aramis Ramirez has struggled at the plate.

Mariners’ offense. The pitching — third in the AL — is about as good as advertised. The offense — last in the AL — is even worse than expected. Six regulars were hitting .220 or lower before Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays. Ken Griffey Jr.’s bat shows no signs of waking up, either. He has one hit since the nap story broke.

Red Sox’s pitching. Having the AL’s worst ERA (4.94) isn’t what general manager Theo Epstein had in mind when he talked about an even greater emphasis on defense and pitching. He has to be wondering a bit about Josh Beckett’s contract extension, too. Beckett has been so bad (7.29 ERA) that the team actually had to be a bit relieved when an injury (back stiffness) was found.

Cubs. Their pitching hasn’t been terrible (4.27 ERA) and their offense ranks in the top five in the NL, but something isn’t right. Look no further than three of Chicago’s highest-paid players — Derrek Lee (.674 OPS), Aramis Ramirez (.527 OPS) and Carlos Zambrano, who has been a flop in the bullpen (5.59 ERA) and the rotation (7.45).

Matt Holliday’s hitting. His .289 average and .357 on-base percentage aren’t terrible, but Holliday is sixth on his own club in RBIs. That isn’t the kind of Albert Pujols protection the Cardinals were projecting when they re-signed Holliday for $121 million. He was moved into the 3 hole ahead of Pujols this week.

Andre Ethier’s broken pinkie. Ethier wasn’t likely to win the Triple Crown. But it would have been nice to see him healthy for a full season to give it a go.

Strike 3: Early-season surprises

The Rays. What should scare opponents about their major league-leading record: Their offense hasn’t clicked yet. Ben Zobrist (no homers after hitting 27 last season), Carlos Pena (.191 batting average) and B.J. Upton (.217) figure to get hot at some point.

Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson as a starter. The converted reliever had a rough outing Tuesday when he allowed seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Angels. Until then, Wilson had given up only eight earned runs total in seven starts.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins. You know he loves seeing his name above Joe Mauer’s among the batting average leaders. What is really impressive: Morneau leads the AL in OBP (.482) and slugging (.694).

The Padres. Their pitching has been the best in the NL, and three scouts in the past week have told me it is legit. Too bad their offense isn’t.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Rockies. A no-hitter, a 7-1 record and a 1.12 ERA. Memo to Tim Lincecum: You have more new competition than Roy Halladay for the NL Cy Young award.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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