Inside Pitch: Leaning on rookies
Astros, Yankees gamble by promoting prospects
Last week, with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros in the throes of seven-game losing streaks, the two teams decided to summon their top prospects from the Minor Leagues: pitcher Phil Hughes of the Yankees and center fielder Hunter Pence of the Astros.
Both players have now made their Major League debuts, and while front office, scouting and on-field types from various organizations are apparently in agreement that Hughes and Pence are extraordinary talents, there seems to be disagreement on whether their April arrivals are indications that the Yankees and Astros are getting desperate as a result of their disappointing starts.
The Yankees admit Hughes' arrival is earlier than expected, but it was necessitated by injuries to Carl Pavano and Mike Mussina, and a pitching staff that has been so stretched that starter Andy Pettitte made two relief appearances.
"It's a necessity for us, but they don't think it's the wrong time for him," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of the decision to promote Hughes, who entered the season with a career Minor League record of 21-7 and 2.13 ERA, striking out 269 batters in 237 1/3 innings. "We certainly had visions of him coming up later on, but we also preface that with, 'If everybody stays healthy,' and that hasn't been the case."
Others wonder whether the Yankees aren't making a mistake putting a 20-year-old, even one with Hughes' considerable skills, in the New York pressure cooker.
"Kansas City tried that with [Zack] Greinke, and obviously this is a situation with far more pressure than you'd have in Kansas City," an official from another team said. "There's a risk you take bringing up someone that young, especially a pitcher. And let's not forget the season's barely a month old. I mean, this is April, not August. What's the rush?"
Greinke was 20 years old when the Royals brought him to the big leagues in 2004. The right-hander went 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts. The following season, Greinke was 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA. Last year, Greinke began the year on the 60-day disabled list because of personal issues. He came back in June, but to the Minors, and didn't return to the Royals until Sept. 22.
Greinke is back in the Kansas City rotation this year and is 1-2 with a 3.51 ERA in five starts. But, you have to wonder if things would have been different for Greinke if he'd had more seasoning in the Minors before getting called up.
Hughes appears to have the mentality to handle being under the microscope, and he certainly has the tools to be a great one. On the other hand, the Yankees are taking a gamble with someone so young, and why gamble if you don't have to take a chance?
"You do something like this if you're concerned you're going to get buried if you don't," a scout said. "That's the only way doing this makes sense."
Pence was hitting .341 at Triple-A Round Rock when he was called up to join Houston in time for the final two games of its weekend series against Milwaukee. Chris Burke, a converted second baseman playing center field, was hitting only .219 when the move was made. And with Houston's offense struggling, the Astros decided it was time to throw Pence, 24, into the mix.
"We've got to find a way to get the offense rolling," GM Tim Purpura said. "We're getting the hits, but not driving in the runs. Hunter's a kid who we really hope can help us with that. It's certainly asking a lot. But all the returns from Round Rock have been very positive. We feel very good about this player. We feel like he can come up here and give us some energy."
The day Pence was sent to the Astros' Minor League camp during Spring Training, Purpura told reporters not to be surprised if Pence didn't spend the entire year in the Minors. Still, this move struck some as premature.
Astros first baseman Lance Berkman said benching Burke is a "horrible move."
"I think Hunter Pence deserves to play in the big leagues," Berkman said. "He's got a bright future. I think he's very talented, and I don't object to them calling him up to try to spark us. But I think it's unfair to Chris. I think it sends the wrong message to the team, that there's something drastic that needs to be fixed. I don't like it. If you're going to put Chris Burke on the bench, I think it's a horrible move."
The coming months will determine whether the Yankees and Astros made the right decisions.
Pearls from the diamond
Trade rumors swirled around Chicago White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle all winter after he went 12-13 with a career-high 4.99 ERA, including 3-7 with a 6.44 ERA after the All-Star break. Now, the author of the season's first no-hitter is hot property with a 2-1 record and 2.97 ERA in his first five starts.
One scout who saw Buerhle this year, and last, says it's simply a better approach by Buehrle.
"To me, he'd gotten away from the thing that made him successful in the first place," the scout said. "When he's at his best, he throws strikes early and he stays low in the zone. Then, he raises the hitter's eye level and gets them to chase his fastball up, which looks hittable, especially after they've looked at low stuff. Or he gets them with a cut fastball inside. I think he got away from that too much late last year and that's when he ran into trouble."
Buehrle allowed 301 baserunners in 204 innings last year. He's allowed 27 in 30 1/3 innings this season.
Al Reyes, 37, who missed the entire 2006 season while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, has been lights out as Tampa Bay's closer, converting nine of nine save opportunities and allowing just two earned runs in 12 innings. He has struck out 16 and walked three and is tied with Cleveland's Joe Borowski -- through Sunday's games -- for the most saves in the American League.
"[Reyes] has a lot more confidence in his slider, and it has better bite than it did before," one scout said. "He's using it [effectively] against lefties and righties."
Signing 44-year-old Jamie Moyer to a two-year deal looks a lot better now, doesn't it? The Phillies have won 10 of the 13 starts Moyer has made since they acquired him last August.
Yes, that was a changeup Milwaukee closer Francisco Cordero used to get Houston's Luke Scott to ground out to second, ending Sunday's Brewers victory -- Cordero's Major League-leading 10th save in as many opportunities. Cordero has not allowed a run this season.
"I really don't use it that much, but I threw a pretty good one and he grounded it to second," said Cordero, who plans to use the pitch "once in a while."
Milwaukee right-hander Claudio Vargas said his slider hasn't been working well his last two outings and plans to work on it in his side session this week before his next start.
"I'll get it [right]," said Vargas, who has held opposing batters to an 0-for-8 string with six strikeouts in bases-loaded situations this season.
The National League Central-leading Brewers were tied with Atlanta for the best record in the NL through Monday's games (16-9), despite second baseman Rickie Weeks hitting .247, first baseman Prince Fielder batting .270, center fielder Bill Hall hitting .239, third basemen Craig Counsell hitting .218 and Tony Graffanino batting .220.
Veteran outfielder Geoff Jenkins believes the Brewers' best baseball is yet to come.
"I think there's definitely a better level we can play to," Jenkins said. "I think we're happy with the way we've played. But at the same time, we've got to continue getting better. [We've got to] learn and grow as a team."
The Cubs have used seven different No. 2 hitters in 23 games: Matt Murton, Cliff Floyd, Jacque Jones, Ryan Theriot, Mark DeRosa, Cesar Izturis and Felix Pie.
"If Izturis were hitting, he'd be the guy you'd want," one scout said of the switch-hitting shortstop. "But you know [Cubs manager] Lou [Piniella] likes a set lineup. Pie will probably be the guy, since he's a lefty and [Jones], the other lefty, isn't a center-field option in that park."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.