By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 2, 2007
For a century, the easiest commodity to find in baseball has been some big lummox with a bat that you can stick in left field or at first base to hit a few dozen home runs for you. For the last generation, the American League has even added a third spot in the batting order for gentlemen so bereft of agility that they can only be trusted to be designated hitters.
Since Babe Ruth was a boy, the minor leagues and the benches of superior teams have been populated by so-called "professional hitters" who, no matter what their defensive liabilities or character flaws, have been able to wake from a deep slumber and bat .290 or draw a ton of walks and generally make themselves useful.
So, why can't the Nationals or Orioles find any of these people? Are they extinct? It's Opening Day, yet neither of these teams has a bona fide thumper at first base or a lumbering bopper in left or, in the O's case, some barely ambulatory but dangerous fellow at DH.
Just as Washington and Baltimore have shown signs in spring training of curing some of the pitching problems that relegated them to 91 and 92 losses last year, respectively, they have suddenly developed a new and novel weakness. Both teams come into the regular season with virtual offensive vacuums at positions that have been the easiest to fill throughout the game's history. The degree to which both the Nationals and Orioles can surpass expectations may hinge on the ability of players such as Ryan Church, Chris Snelling and Dmitri Young in Washington or Aubrey Huff, Jay Payton and Kevin Millar to fill major offensive gaps in both lineups.
What is perhaps most frustrating for both teams is that they are loaded with superior offensive players at most of the other positions -- the spots where it is usually hard to find run production. The Nats have infielders such as Ryan Zimmerman and Felipe Lopez, and Austin Kearns in right field, who are run producers. Even shortstop Cristian Guzman, who hit .413 in spring training, may be an offensive plus again, as he was in Minnesota. A bulked-up Brian Schneider should have offensive punch now at catcher. The Orioles have men who are elite offensively by the standards of their tough defensive positions: Miguel Tejada, Ramon Hernandez, Brian Roberts, Melvin Mora and Nick Markakis.
But at first base and in left field, both teams approach Opening Day with near vacuums. The Nats have plucked Young off the unemployed ranks and handed him the first base job on the basis of a .250 average and four RBI in Florida. To add suspense, Young has never truly been a first baseman before; he just looks like one. In left field, Church almost squandered the job he'd been given (.215), but Snelling (.212) couldn't take it. In the minors lurks promising Kory Casto, watching and waiting.
The Orioles are in particular pain at DH where they had a possible platoon of gimpy Jay Gibbons and aging Millar -- that is, until the pair hit .180 and .089 in spring training. In Florida, Baltimore scored a lowly 124 runs in 33 exhibition games with only 16 homers, the least of any team in spring training.
At least the Nats have an excuse. "Left fielder" Alfonso Soriano refused to take a $50 million pay cut to stay in Washington and hit 46 more home runs this season. And first baseman Nick Johnson broke his leg late last September and won't be back in his cleanup spot until midseason -- hopefully mid-this-season.
The Orioles, however, have been aware of their offensive problems at left field, first base and DH for a couple of years. Yet they haven't been able to fill their needs with any type of offensive force -- whether that is a low-average slugger, a .300 hitter who may lack power or a high on-base percentage Moneyball-type player. Every time the Orioles face Boston, they see the prototypes that they lack: DH David Ortiz, abysmal left fielder Manny Ramirez and walk-machine first baseman Kevin Youkilis.
Opening Day is for optimism and both the Nationals and Orioles have reason for their share. Nothing trumps a radical improvement in a team's pitching staff. Such a transformation can compensate for any other flaw. And both teams may be turning a corner.
Last year, Baltimore had the worst ERA in its history, 5.35. Was that an anomaly, especially with Leo Mazzone as pitching coach? Apparently. This spring Orioles southpaw rookie Adam Loewen (1.64 ERA) has combined with Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera to help Baltimore post the second-best exhibition ERA in baseball at 3.24. No, it doesn't count in the record books. But you can bet Sam Perlozzo swallows fewer antacid tablets. The bullpen, which specialized in asking the umpire for new balls last season, has been so deep in strikeout pitchers that Baltimore also posted more K's in March than any team.
The Nats responded to their pitching dilemma with a unique solution. Washington's rotation was so expendable that the Nats expended with it. Razed the rotation. Started over. Welcomed John Patterson back from the disabled list, but cleaned out every other locker. So far, the results from Viera have been more than promising.
The team that looked like it might have the worst rotation in recent times has come back to RFK Stadium with five fairly credible pitchers who had a combined 3.59 ERA in spring training. The entire 12-man Washington staff had a 3.22 ERA in Florida. Perhaps the most important development in March was the emergence of two rookies, Shawn Hill and lefty Matt Chico.
Hill, who had a 1.37 ERA in spring training, is a 25-year-old right-hander with a receding hairline, an accountant's demeanor and superior command of a lively fastball that he couldn't throw straight if he tried. The husky Chico looks more athletic, but isn't as polished yet. Both are smart and competitive. The key for Chico will be keeping his composure and confidence against major league hitters while he gains experience. Perhaps he should remember that hard knocks are the norm. In '88, Tom Glavine was thrown into the Atlanta rotation and did quite well learning his trade -- despite a 7-17 record.
With Hill, the issue will be far simpler. He's often been hurt and missed the whole '05 season. He's never started more than 25 games in a season. But when he's healthy, he's never been hit hard anywhere, including his first four Nats starts last year before he had elbow pains. Based on nearly 500 innings in the minors (32-27, 3.12 ERA) a healthy Hill can probably be more effective than any Washington starting pitcher last season. Faint praise? Perhaps.
All of the nice exhibition statistics go out the window today. But who imagined that the Nats and Orioles would be praising their pitchers this April while, privately, worrying about their hitting?
So, let the tryouts for "hero" begin. If Young or Church, Snelling or Casto, Gibbons or Millar, Payton or Huff -- all applicants are welcome -- can have a peak year, their impact will be magnified enormously. A batting order abhors a vacuum. If either the Nats or Orioles can fill their current lineup voids, the impact could be sudden and surprising.