Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pitchers and Catchers Report

Well, some of them, anyway. The New York Yankees, for one, are charging up their batteries in Tampa. The Twins, on the other hand, don't get crackin' until Monday. Both are just examples. The White Sox report Sunday afternoon, if my math is correct. The Brewers? The Velvet Underground have a song about it: "Sunday Morning."

It's funny that so much is made out of such a non-event date, but that's the way it goes during the long, dark winter of the baseball season. Three pitchers I'll be paying particular attention to:

1. Dave Bush (Brewers) - in my opinion, "Good Bush" is the key to the Brewers rotation, and whether or not it performs at a level good enough to give the tremendous offense a chance to win games. Yovanni Gallardo and Randy Wolf will allow the Brewers to win 2/3rds of the games they start. Doug Davis is nothing if not the most consistently mediocre pitcher in baseball - the Brewers can win half the games he starts, and the fact that he does pitch deep into games, even when he's allowing runs (as opposed to Jeff Suppan), means the bullpen can take an inning or two off here and there. Our #5 spot is completely unreliable - but that's nothing special in today's Major League Baseball. So, the key is Bush. If you recall, Dave Bush is the only current Brewers starter to come anywhere close to a no-hitter, and he clearly has the skills to win games for the Brewers, and keep them in games when he can't dominate his opponents. The Brewers need that 2008 (or 2006!) version of Dave Bush to show up, and hopefully not take any more line drives to the elbow. It's a slight mix of correlation and causation, but when Dave Bush keeps his WHIP low, the Brewers finish above .500. When he allows baserunners, he gets in trouble, and when Dave Bush gets in trouble, the small-market rotation house of cards starts trembling. And then we get waterboarded.

2. Francisco Liriano (Twins) - Back in "the day" (2006), Liriano and Johan Santana were the Minnesota one-two punch that no team wanted to go up against. Then, late that year, Liriano got hurt, needed Tommy John surgery, and just couldn't seem to recapture his top fastball or - and this really hurt - the bite on his slider, the kind of slider that could bankrupt White Castle. He's floundered ever since... until this winter, when all of a sudden, the 2006 Liriano magically reappeared for the Dominican Republic team in Winter League baseball. His stats with the Leones are just silly. He went 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven playoff starts along with 47 strikeouts in 37 innings. In his championship-clinching appearance in Game 9* of the WL series, he allowed three hits - weak ones - in five scoreless innings, struck out six and walked only one batter he faced. In the regular WL games, he pitched like some long-lost twin brother of Mariano Rivera who became a starter instead of a closer, with a WHIP of .086. Again: SILLY. If this guy shows up in the Warehouse District in April, we'll be talking Cy Young in May. More likely, he returns to form as a great second second starter in a deep, quality Twins rotation. Or, all those gaudy winter numbers may all be chaff before the thresher. Like I said: I'll be watching.

3. Jake Peavy (White Sox) - I don't need to tell you how effective Mr. Solid State was in Burritoville USA. Petco Park is the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in this or any other world. I will tell you this: he's got a nasty sinker, but doesn't rely on ground ball outs as much as a one-trick sinkerballer like Chien Ming Wang or Fausto Carmona. Put it all together, and Peavy shouldn't be quite as dominant at the Cell, or in the American League for that matter, yet reports of his death should be greatly exaggerated. Anyway, if he is 90% the pitcher he was in San Diego, he will anchor a rotation that is the class of the AL Central. If his ankle injury has taken a higher toll than we realize, and the Miguel Cabreras and Grady Sizemores of the world start figuring him out by July? Well, at least we'll have a plethora of entertaining Ozzie Guillen soundbites to look forward to (honestly this is the silver lining where any White Sox disasters are concerned).

*The Winter League championship series is a best-of-nine. The World Series used to be best-of-nine. Bring that back! Seriously! As a result of allowing four playoff teams instead of two, and playing short divisional series, luck now plays too large a role in the current WS format. Nine games! Nine games! NINE GAMES! That is all.

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