Inside Pitch: Deals bring early returns
Several offseason moves already impacting races
In a year in which Florida, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Oakland were either in first place or within a half-game of first six weeks into the season, it probably shouldn't come as any surprise that some offseason trades have provided early-season surprises.
There's plenty of time for things to change, but on the theory that it's never too early to check the status of some of the offseason moves and how they are impacting this season's races, here's a look at some of the early returns:
The Mets acquired two-time unanimous Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana from Minnesota on Feb. 2 for outfielder Carlos Gomez, right-hander Philip Humber and Minor League right-handers Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra.
Santana, 4-2 with a 4.05 ERA, is only 29 and figures to give the Mets several good years. The veteran left-hander's presence has been all the more vital with Pedro Martinez on the mend, as the Mets are in a fight for supremacy in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.
The Twins, however, are thrilled with the play of the 22-year-old Gomez, who has filled the void in center field created by Torii Hunter's departure via free agency.
Gomez hit for the cycle against the White Sox last week, prompting White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen to tell reporters that Gomez "might be not too far away from people saying, 'Torii Hunter who?' I saw Kirby Puckett play, and I said, 'Torii Hunter is not going to [make people] forget Kirby Puckett,' but this kid can bring a lot of good things to baseball."
Gomez is one of the reasons the Twins have climbed toward the top of the AL Central.
The White Sox picked up their own impressive young outfielder when they acquired 25-year-old Carlos Quentin from Arizona for infielder Christopher Carter. The Diamondbacks then sent Carter to Oakland as part of the package for Dan Haren.
Quentin, a former first-round draft choice, is hitting .293 with nine homers and 34 RBIs as Chicago's regular left fielder.
Haren has combined with Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson and Micah Owings to give Arizona one of the more formidable rotations in baseball, helping the Diamondbacks race to the top of the NL West.
Two of the six players the Diamondbacks sent to the A's for Haren and right-hander Connor Robertson -- lefties Dana Eveland and Greg Smith -- have made significant contributions to an Oakland rotation that has been among the league leaders in ERA. Carter could provide power down the road and scouts love another player the A's obtained in the deal, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.
Detroit obtained third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis from Florida for pitchers Andrew Miller, Eulogio De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop, catcher Mike Rabelo and outfielder Cameron Maybin.
Florida leads the NL East with a 23-17 record, with rotation members Badenhop and Miller accounting for four wins and 70 innings. Rabelo won the starting job at catcher. Maybin is a five-tool prospect the Marlins see as a future middle-of-the-order hitter.
Meanwhile, a winless Willis took his 7.20 ERA to the disabled list and the Tigers are 16-24 and in the AL Central cellar. Cabrera has been moved to first base and his batting average of .269 is 41 points below his career average.
The Tigers also sent a pair of Minor Leaguers, right-hander Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, to Atlanta for veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria.
Renteria, 32, is hitting .260, 31 points below his career average and 72 points shy of what he hit last year for the Braves. Jurrjens, 4-3 with a 3.10, has the second-most wins on the team behind Tim Hudson and has worked more innings than any Atlanta pitcher except Hudson.
Other deals have worked out well for both sides.
The Phillies are thrilled with closer Brad Lidge, acquired from Houston along with infielder Eric Bruntlett for outfielder Michael Bourn, pitcher Geoff Geary and third baseman Mike Constanzo. Lidge is 1-0 with a 0.50 ERA and is 10-for-10 in save opportunities, meaning he has recorded a win or a save in 50 percent of Philadelphia's 22 victories to date.
Bourn hasn't hit well (.187 entering play Thursday) as Houston's leadoff man but he has played excellent defense and leads the Major Leagues with 17 stolen bases. Geary (1-1, 1.50 ERA in 18 appearances) has been a key component in the bullpen.
The Astros sent right-handers Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez and infielder Chris Burke to Arizona for closer Jose Valverde, and while Valverde hasn't been as dominant as Lidge (4-1, 4.35 ERA, 10-for-13 in save opportunities) he has pitched well enough to help the Astros overcome a slow start to move five games above .500.
Qualls recorded 16 consecutive scoreless appearances for Arizona before finally allowing an earned run.
Baltimore's rebuilding efforts have been accelerated thanks to a pair of offseason deals involving shortstop Miguel Tejada and pitcher Erik Bedard.
While Tejada (Astros) and Bedard (Mariners) have both played well with their new teams, several players from the Orioles' offseason haul -- outfielders Adam Jones and Luke Scott, pitchers George Sherrill, Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate -- are already contributing at the Major League level and two others, injured pitcher Troy Patton and Double-A right-hander Chris Tillman, should help down the road.
Cincinnati right-hander Edinson Volquez (6-1, 1.12) is tied for second in the Major Leagues with 57 strikeouts while the outfielder the Reds sent to Texas to get Volquez, Josh Hamilton, leads the Major Leagues with 44 RBIs.
The Diamondbacks have been talking with Brandon Webb and his agent, Jonathan Maurer, regarding a contract extension that would keep the right-hander with the club well into the next decade.
Webb, 8-0 with a 2.41 ERA in eight starts, is making $5.5 million this season and is due $6.5 million for 2009. The team holds an option for 2010 for $8.5 million or a $1.5 million buyout.
It is unclear how close the two sides are at this point -- they had also discussed an extension over the winter -- but since signing center fielder Chris Young to a five-year, $28 million extension plus an option for a sixth year last month, and with Randy Johnson's $16 million coming off the books after this season, the organization is in position to proceed with a package for Webb.
It is believed the sides are discussing an extension covering three years, which would keep Webb under contract through at least 2013, when Webb would be 34 years old. Webb turned 29 last Friday.
The Ashland, Ky., native won the National League Cy Young Award in 2006 and finished second to San Diego's Jake Peavy in the balloting last season.
In Spring Training he was competing for a rotation spot. Now Cleveland's Cliff Lee is off to the kind of start that has the lefty in Hall of Fame company.
After seven starts, Lee is 6-0 with a 0.67 ERA. In 52 2/3 innings he's allowed 32 hits, four walks and four earned runs while striking out 44.
In 1968, St. Louis right-hander Bob Gibson went 3-2 with a 1.43 ERA in his first seven starts. The Hall of Famer allowed 46 hits, 14 walks and 10 earned runs while striking out 46 in 63 innings. Gibson went on to finish 22-9 with 28 complete games, 13 shutouts and a 1.12 ERA en route to the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.
Gibson's dominance that season was one of the factors that contributed to the lowering of the mound.
Since World War II only three pitchers have won their first six starts and had a lower ERA than Lee: Fernando Valenzuela ('81 Dodgers), 0.33; Roger Clemens ('91 Red Sox), 0.73 and Pedro Martinez ('97 Expos), 0.79. All three went on to win the Cy Young Award.
Washington's John Lannan was good enough to accomplish the rare feat of going from Single-A to the Major Leagues last season. Lannan, drafted by the Nationals in 2005, is 3-4 with a 3.74 ERA this year and impressing scouts with each outing. One went so far to say that he sees something of Tom Glavine in the 23-year-old lefty.
"He doesn't have Glavine's control yet but the way he works the corners and keeps changing levels reminds me of [Glavine]," the scout said. "That shows me he's already way ahead of most pitchers his age."
Billy Butler was signed as a third baseman and has also spent time in Kansas City's outfield and at designated hitter. But Butler has been playing first base lately (he started his 13th game at the position Wednesday night) and looks to have found a home.
"I've been really pleased with what Billy has done at first base," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "I think he's better than he was when he left camp."
Butler as the everyday first baseman is something that's been in the works since last year. Though he's not on a par with Ross Gload defensively, Butler hasn't made an error either.
"I work hard every day and I've been doing all the extra work to way back before Spring Training started so it's starting to pay off. I'm just comfortable over there and when you're comfortable, you can make good plays," Butler said. "You don't have a bunch of tension and if you mess up, you don't know if you're going to be out there again -- I don't worry about that at all."
After a rough start, Cincinnati's Bronson Arroyo has had two good outings in his last three starts, including an eight-inning, one-run effort in a win against the Mets on May 10.
"I think he's changing speeds better," a veteran NL scout said. "His curveball was 68 [mph], slower than it was when I saw him last month. That tells me he's not trying to throw everything as hard, and that's when he's toughest to hit, when he's not overthrowing everything."
An NL West scout says Florida's Hanley Ramirez is the best player in the National League.
"He keeps getting better and better," the scout said. "You have Jimmy Rollins and [Chase] Utley and Matt Holliday. Those are the top guys. Of those three, Rollins is probably the best all-around. Ramirez is still young, and getting better defensively. Of Rollins and Ramirez, I take Ramirez in a heartbeat."
Pat Burrell's early-season tear is not only helping the Phillies stay in the thick of things in the NL East, it's also helping the outfielder's bargaining power.
Burrell is in the final year of his six-year, $50 million contract. He is batting .298 with nine homers, 31 RBIs, 78 total bases and a .434 on-base percentage (entering play Thursday). The 31-year-old is among the league leaders in several statistical categories.
Two years ago the Phillies were open to trading Burrell, who has a no-trade clause, but now they are considering whether to re-sign him to an extension. Burrell has said he would like to re-sign with the Phillies.
If he keeps this up, however, testing his value on the free agent market may be too tempting for Burrell to pass up next winter.
Left-hander Oliver Perez of the Mets is another player in the final year of his contract who could present an interesting decision for his current team.
Perez, who won $6.5 million in arbitration this year, is 3-3 with a 4.61 ERA in eight starts. He won 15 games and ranked second in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings last year. He was also among the league's top 10 in opponents' batting average against and ERA.
Perez, represented by agent Scott Boras, will be looking for a long-term deal next time around. The Mets have Johan Santana and John Maine under contract for 2009 but must make decisions on Perez, Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez.
NL Player of the Week Lance Berkman's amazing run has helped Houston get off the mat in the NL Central.
The first baseman's binge included 18 hits in a 23 at-bat span, 20 hits in 27 at-bats as well as a club-record 18 hits in a five-game span (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). Berkman also had a franchise-record eight consecutive hits in as many at-bats.
Astros bench coach Jackie Moore compared Berkman's season to Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski's MVP year with Boston during an interview with XM Satellite Radio.
"I remember when Carl Yastrzemski was the MVP when I was a coach for the Red Sox and back then Yastrzemski would do whatever the team needed, a single, double, a good play in the field, and I see this happening again with Lance Berkman this year," Moore told XM. "He really is the guy the team looks to in situations and he's the leader of this team; when he's healthy, he's something else and you can tell he's healthy this year."
Berkman's year is reminiscent of the year another Houston first baseman, Jeff Bagwell, had in 1994. Bagwell, whose favorite player growing up was Yastrzemski, won the MVP that year.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.