Thrill of Victory

Friday's random baseball thoughts

We’ve now finished almost three weeks of the baseball season. Here are some of my brief and random thoughts on some happenings from this season.

I was eager to watch the starting debut of Cincinnati pitcher Tony Cingrani last night, and he didn’t disappoint. Cingrani is one of the better stories in Major League Baseball this year; he was so bad as a junior at Rice that he asked the coaches if he needed to quit. Coach Wayne Graham told him “no,” tweaked his mechanics, and added several miles to his fastball next season.
That helped Cingrani get drafted in the third round in 2011, and the lefty has dominated in the minors by striking out almost 12 hitters per nine innings and walking not even a fourth of that number. His stuff isn’t overpowering — he operates in the low-90s with his fastball, though he can dial it up higher if he wishes — and he doesn’t have a great and second or third pitch, and so us relies on it to a huge degree.

For that reason, scouts don’t love him. However, Cingrani hides the ball quite well in his delivery and that makes him very tough to hit. Sure enough, he struck out eight Miami Marlins in his debut last night.

I’m watching to see if Cingrani can continue to be as wildly effective as he’s been, and what the Reds do with him. He was just promoted from AAA because Johnny Cueto got hurt, but Cueto won’t be out long. Some think that hitters will figure Cingrani out because of his lack of secondary pitches, but that certainly never happened at the lower levels.

Opposite of Cingrani last night was Miami’s Jose Fernandez, a Cuban defector, who won’t turn 21 until the last day of July. It’s rare enough to see a 20-year-old in an MLB starting rotation, much less one who can throw 99 and compliment it with a quality breaking pitch. On the rare occasion that these guys exists, they usually don’t have good control, but guess what? He’s got that, too.
Fernandez didn’t have his “A” stuff last night, but I was impressed with his ability to operate low in the zone. Should he stay healthy, he’ll be one of the dominant pitchers in MLB for years to come.

Oddly enough, the Marlins started Fernandez in the rotation on opening day; had they just waited 11 more days after the season started to promote him, Fernandez would have been a free agent in 2018, not 2019. It’s just another puzzling decision by Miami owner Jeffrey Loria, who after fleecing the Miami taxpayers for a new stadium under the guise of “poverty” (all the while hiding the millions he was making) and then dumping his roster over the winter, shouldn’t be allowed to own an MLB club, anyway.

How about Atlanta’s Evan Gattis hitting another home run last night? This one, the eventual game-winner as a pinch-hitter against the Pirates in the eighth inning. That’s five in 43 at-bats for the immensely-talented 26-year-old rookie, whose demons forced him from baseball a few years back.
Nobody ever thought this was possible, but the Braves may have some choices to make when all-star catcher Brian McCann returns from a wrist injury in a couple of weeks. McCann’s numbers have been in decline for a couple of seasons; could a platoon situation (Gattis is a right-handed hitter, McCann, a lefty?) be in order?

Gattis can also play the outfield, but it’s unlikely he’ll find a spot there unless there’s an injury to Atlanta’s super-talented outfield of the Uptons and Jason Heyward.

Speaking of the Braves, that 13-2 start isn’t sustainable, but I suspected that Atlanta might be a better club that Washington coming into the season and so far, I’m right: the Braves are four games up on the Nationals. I’m still not sold on the Braves’ entire infield — it can be good, but probably not elite — but with the Braves’ pitching depth in the rotation and in the pen due to the emergence of middle-of-the-rotation starters Mike Minor and Paul Maholm, Atlanta looks pretty tough.
And let’s not forget that the Braves have done this without perhaps their best starter (Brandon Beachy is out until the All-Star break), a dominant set-up man (Jonny Venters) and their best-hitting infielder (Freddie Freeman). Freeman should be back before long, and Venters, probably around late-May or June.

With all that, I think it’s worth considering whether the Braves should be the legitimate favorite in the East now.

The Angels’ 4-10 start is concerning after last year’s similar slow start, but what’s more concerning is L.A.’s minus-27 run differential, compared to division-leading Oakland’s plus-33 — especially after the As blasted the Angels by a combined 28-11 margin in a three-game series last week.

Offensively, the big problem is that nobody outside Albert Pujols (and to some extent, Mike Trout) is hitting. Josh Hamilton has been terrible, but should pick things up. The bigger question I have is whether Pujols can play this season as a truly elite player; Pujols’ age is listed as 33, but there have always been questions whether that understated the case by a couple of years as ages of players born in the Dominican Republic often are.

Either way, Pujols’ stats have fallen off markedly the last two seasons and that’s a storyline worth watching this year.

Pitching is the bigger issue in L.A. Ace Jered Weaver is out at least a month with arm problems. C.J. Wilson looks more like the pitcher he was before that breakout 2011 season that earned him a huge contract. Tommy Hanson’s fastball velocity continues its steady four-year decline, and while Joe Blanton’s peripheral stats have always suggested he’s more than the innings-eater he’s always been, he’s not even an adequate innings-eater any more.

As a consequence, the team’s ERA is now 5.43, which is awful for any team, much less one that’s paying huge dollars to its staff.

And speaking of the Angels, former South Carolina ace Michael Roth wasn’t considered much of a prospect after a spectacular career for the Gamecocks. Roth, in college this time two years ago, has already been promoted to L.A. Roth’s velocity generally tops out in the upper-80s, but his success proves there’s still room for a smart pitcher who knows where his pitches are going.