Pitching, Pitching, Pitching (Updated)
What would the Giants look like in the post-season without Tim Lincecum? What about the Yankees if the A.J. Burnett they get is last month’s, not Monday night’s?
There is something bizarre about the rapidity with which the Giants had prized prospect (and the singularly named) Madison Bumgarner ready to go as soon as the news came down that Tim Lincecum would not pitch against the Padres Tuesday night. As late as Tuesday morning, newspapers in Eastern League cities had Bumgarner pitching the opening game of that circuit’s playoffs, Wednesday night, for the Connecticut Defenders. I know we have jets nowadays, and you could actually get from the Nutmeg State to SFO Airport in less than six weeks of stagecoach relays, but doesn’t it strike you that the Giants had to have had more of a hint that the incumbent Cy Young Winner’s back was acting up, than they’re letting on?
In turn, does that suggest that Lincecum is more hurt than they’re letting on? Certainly the reach to Bumgarner – the minors’ best pitching prospect even though he is barely two years removed from high school – implies that. To be fair, there was nobody on the active Giants’ roster this morning who had started a game in the majors this year (concurrent with Bumgarner’s promotion, Joe Martinez was summoned from Fresno, but Martinez pitched four innings on Saturday). Still, Madison Bumgarner, 3,000 miles away, does not sound like the likeliest emergency starter, even if you’re two games out in the wild card.
This update: as Bumgarner made his debut against the Padres, on the San Diego telecast, Mark Grant (who himself debuted as a 20-year old Giants starter before Bumgarner was born), offers an intriguing theory that uses the same evidence to reach the exact opposite conclusion. It’s not that Lincecum’s hurt, it’s that he’s just a little tired, and the rest could do him good for his next two starts, both against the Dodgers. I have to say Big Grant’s theory holds at least as much water as my own.
Meantime the Yankees are breathing a little more deeply after A.J. Burnett’s solid work on Monday, though they are fully aware that their second most expensive free agent starter was on the ropes in the night game against the Rays until Andy Sonnanstine took him off it by giving up eight runs. Forget Jeter, Sabathia, Rivera, Teixeira and all the rest – Burnett might be the most pivotal figure in New York’s post-season hopes. If he is the lights-out pitcher of the spring and early summer the Yankees are the favorites in any post-season series.
But if he’s not, the Yankee rotation is Sabathia and The Question Marks. Andy Pettitte has been successful but nearly as generous to the hitters as Burnett. The Yankees have meanwhile completely screwed up Joba Chamberlain. This leaves… Sergio Mitre? Somebody in the Bronx is likely regretting having not given Alfredo Aceves a more serious look as a starter.
The Yankees’ starting weakness and another flaw are the kind that might not show up over the course of a long season against a lot of those pitching-poor, fundamentally-unsound AL also-rans, but could be fatal in the playoffs. The second problem is outfield defense. Brett Gardner can run down anything, but could not stave off Melky Cabrera’s bat. Johnny Damon is still a strong outfielder, and still would be better off returning the ball to the infield by FedEx. Cabrera is a mixed bag in the field. Nick Swisher could have the team’s best outfield arm, and that should terrify any Yankee fan who contemplated a playoff series turning on a successful relay play to the plate, or even a great catch in rightfield.
One other pitching note: the mutterings are that the Rockies are not as confident as they appear, that Huston Street will be back closing by this weekend or even the first of next week. Nothing firm on this, but worth noting (and thanks to the lights-out brilliance of Franklin Morales, not necessarily a big thing one way or another – except if it lingers to the post-season and experience or its lack is magnified).
Recommended Prospects, Recommended Reading (Updated)
Funny that with all the big names moving before the deadline, the number of primo prospects was actually pretty low. I was particularly unimpressed with what the Indians got for Cliff Lee (and Ben Francisco) although I am only about ten percent insufficiently skeptical to address the Lee deal as I did the McLouth one – that the trading team was selling a guy, if not at peak value, then at the last moment he would be seriously overvalued, and were doing well to get anything hopeful back.
Having said that, if you still consider Justin Masterson a prospect and not a full-fledged major leaguer, he was clearly the most gifted of all the players given up for “the names.” A year from now, when Brad Penny and John Smoltz and who knows who else are Red Sox memories, Boston would not have parted with him, and not just because of his pitching gifts. The Sox are astounded by his quiet leadership, an almost unheard-of quality for a pitcher. He doesn’t rant, he doesn’t yell, he doesn’t slap his glove against his thigh, and nothing bleeds from his sock. He just inspires his teammates to feel more secure about their talents and accomplishments, and their prospects for winning the game. Terry Francona will miss him, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of his life.
And ironically, given how they are howling in Pittsburgh over the exiling of McLouth, then Jack Wilson, then Freddie Sanchez, the head-and-shoulders pick for the top pure-prospect traded against the deadline was the guy the Bucs got for Sanchez, pitcher Tim Alderson. Harkening back to the Johan Santana/Yankees post here, the rule of thumb is that half of all pitching prospects fail. That would ordinarily discourage the ever-discouraged Pirate faithful. However, Alderson and Charlie Morton are both front-of-rotation, ace-of-staff prospects. If one makes it and the other turns merely into a righty Jarrod Washburn, they’ve done awfully well – and this assumes that very little else from the McLouth or Wilson trades bears great fruit, which is not necessarily a correct assumption.
One more deadline note. The amazement at the Adam LaRoche/Casey Kotchman trade itself amazes me. The Red Sox made a similar acquisition in 2004, a glove-first, low-power starting first baseman, about whom everyone said “where they gonna play him?” His name was Doug Mientkiewicz and the point was, his window as a starting player was pretty much over, as is Kotchman’s. He will never hit enough. So you keep the defensive whiz as your back-up and pay for it by spending the middling slugger with the middling glove. The only complication this time is that the Boston backup on those days when Victor Martinez is playing first, is a fellow named Youkilis, and he’s no slouch.
BRIEF UPDATE NOT WORTHY OF ITS OWN POST
The Rangers sent Frank Francisco out on rehab to AAA. To Frisco of the Texas League. Making him Frank Francisco of Frisco.
Nearly as good as Johnny Podres of the Padres, Jim York of New York, or Ted Cox of the Red Sox.
READ – IN FACT, YOU’RE DOING IT NOW!
Three books to endorse with high praise and the caveat that I’m mentioned in one, and two of them are written by friends. I write as a guy who was once the country’s only nationally-published reviewer of baseball books (who once gave the second edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia a panning for some awful typos) so finding three I like at one time is quite a feat.
First there’s Marty Appel’s Munson: The Life And Death Of A Yankee Captain. When a book reveals details of a man’s life to his own family, it’s a pretty good book. I am duly impressed both with the research effort and the clarity of Marty’s work, and the attempt to recreate that sad day 30 years ago tomorrow when Munson’s death shocked baseball. It is not happy reading, but it is worthwhile reading.
I think Ron Darling may have written (let’s broaden it out to all of them who didn’t go to Yale; even co-written) the best book by a pitcher since Kirby Higbe’s HIgh And Inside. Ron’s is called The Complete Game and it takes a novel approach: a pitch-by-pitch, thought-by-thought recitation of key innings of key games, nearly all of them his own, throughout his long span in college and major league ball. Apart from taking you inside an entire team’s thinking as the pitches succeed each other, Ronnie also underscores what is to me the most underrated skill among elite athletes: Memory. Nearly all of the microscopic detail (what he was thinking between the third and fourth pitches, to the third hitter, in the fifth inning, of his thirteenth start, etc) was pulled from his recall and simply verified in the record books. He rolls the details out the way Gordie Howe once rolled out each shot he took in a Detroit Red Wings-New York Rangers game, 27 years after he played it. A great read, and very well written.
Almost not at all written is the third suggestion: Chris Epting’s The Early Polo Grounds. This is 181 pre-1925 photos taken at the legendary home of The New York Giants and it borders on time travel, even if the captions aren’t always complete (a date of an October, 1910, photo is disputed by the author because the Giants didn’t play in that year’s World Series; he seems not to have known that in those days the Giants and Yankees regularly played post-season series for the “Championship of New York”). Having just spent hours in the photo vaults of Cooperstown looking at all the photos of the fabled ballpark, I can say that this collection rivals that part of the Hall’s from the 20th Century – plus, they won’t arrest you if you try to take it home.