Gammons: Slumping clubs seek answers
Slow starts have fans and media calling for major changes
White Sox GM Ken Williams awakened Friday to the headline insisting that he "Tell The Truth." In New York, Jerry Manuel awakened to a back page that read "End of the Line," while the Red Sox awakened in Philadelphia for three games before three more in St. Petersburg, and the D-backs awakened to face the Blue Jays in the middle of a nightmarish seven-week schedule ride that they hope won't cause their stagnant fan base to decide that they're reaching the dreaded -- destination: don't care.
"It is still May," said Williams, whose team that morning was eight games under .500 and 7 1/2 games behind the Twins. "Look, the fans are losing patience. So am I. But I'm not breaking this team up in the middle of May. The Blackhawks are on the verge of going to the Stanley Cup finals, and I'm the lead story?"
The dilemma facing teams like the White Sox, Red Sox, D-backs, Mets and Brewers is when is it too early to ask whether it's going to work? When Boston blew a 6-1 lead in Detroit late last Saturday night, slept through a loss to the Tigers the next day, then on Monday night rallied then blew an exhausting 11-9 loss at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox's struggles overshadowed the Celtics' series with Orlando.
"We have to see if this team is going to get healthy and begin playing the way the team we thought we had can play," said general manager Theo Epstein. "We're supposed to be a team built on starting pitching. We've actually performed well offensively, but our pitchers aren't doing what everyone expects. We have to believe that it will eventually happen."
Tuesday night, the Red Sox overcame another 6-1 deficit in Yankee Stadium and won, 7-6. The next two nights Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester dominated the Twins, and hopelessness looked up and found the Townies 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees, with the Philly-St. Pete ending to a grueling three-week stretch staring back at them.
"Things change so quickly," said Epstein, "one has to resist the temptation to overreact."
Indeed. Amid demands that he release David Ortiz, Epstein looked up Friday and found Ortiz second in homers and third in OPS among American League designated hitters.
Mets COO Jeff Wilpon fueled the Mets' panic in New York when he flew to Atlanta for a summit with Manuel and GM Omar Minaya, throwing lighter fluid on the simmering coals of what has become a negative base. Ironically, at the time the Mets were hovering close to the first-place Phillies. But by the time they got back to New York for the Subway Series -- which because of the rivalry seems to spark annual calls for firings (like Yankees GM Brian Cashman in 2007) -- the Mets were in the process of losing 10 of 13.
The Mets have a complex set of problems. Jose Reyes was hurt, then he seemed lost in the No. 3 hole, which silenced their ignition. David Wright was again taking too much upon himself for whatever went wrong. He is caught in between trying to pull home runs and let the ball come to him, and he has struck out at an alarming rate. Jason Bay has one homer.
"And," said one Mets player, "we're playing without our best player [Carlos Beltran]."
But, most important, after a winter in which they simply couldn't invest in needed pitching, their starting pitching -- other than Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey -- was unraveling. Oliver Perez and John Maine's first 16 starts produced one win, one reliever and one DL stint, while Jon Niese pulled a hamstring and Jenrry Mejia wasn't stretched out to start because he opened the season in middle relief despite the fact he'd never won a game above A-ball.
The Mets have had a recent history of stormy instability, of fired coaches and managers and a constant eye on which way the wind is blowing. Minaya's farm system has produced this season, beginning with Ike Davis and Niese. He doesn't have the revenue to get into the Roy Oswalt or Cliff Lee sweepstakes, but he's in a division that, other than the Phillies -- and they are closing with Jose Contreras -- has several undercurrents of unpredictability.
"I look at the Mets and think that, if they get Reyes, Wright, Bay and Beltran going and Omar can find another pitcher or two, they're going to fit in behind the Phillies and perhaps contend for the Wild Card," said one National League general manager. "Their problem is that they really won't know who and what they are until the All-Star break."
The natural question for the D-backs is whether there is something wrong with what is a very talented group of position players.
"We have asked ourselves that question," said GM Josh Byrnes. "We think about it. But we don't have answers. We realize that our bullpen's performance has had a rippling effect on the season thus far. But we look at our 26- to 28-year-old talent and ask why this can't be a competitive team."
As of Friday night, the D-backs had gone through 13 relievers that added up to a 7.79 ERA, and Byrnes had begun to make changes that started with the release of Bob Howry -- how bad is relief pitching when the fall guy for a 7.79 bullpen immediately gets a job with the Cubs? Dan Haren is better than a 4.79 ERA. Edwin Jackson is better than 7.69. Ian Kennedy has been very good. No, Brandon Webb isn't about to come back, and their best young pitcher, Jarrod Parker, won't be back until 2011 after offseason Tommy John surgery.
But the D-backs do lead the league in runs and homers and are second only to the Philies in OPS, and that's with Justin Upton striking out 57 times and Conor Jackson limited to 23 games. For now, all they can do is scour the waiver wire for live bullpen arms and see how those young players progress. The question has a basis in reasonable doubt: back on Aug. 29, 2008, the team that in 2007 won 90 games and began the 2008 season 20-8 beat the Dodgers in Phoenix to open up a 4 1/2-game lead on Los Angeles. They lost the next two games at home, went 13-15 the rest of the way as the Dodgers rolled on to the playoffs, were 70-92 last season and are now under .500.
Friday night's win over Toronto was positive, but once they are done with the Jays, look at their next 44 games: three at Colorado, three at San Fransisco, three at L.A., three with Colorado, four with Atlanta, three with St. Louis, three at Boston, three at Detroit, three with the Yankees, three at Tampa Bay, three at St. Louis, three with L.A., three with the Cubs, four with Florida. Say they go 17-27 and are 15 games under .500 in mid-July. What happens to the fan base? With all the money they're still paying Jerry Colangelo's players, will ownership need to get from $85 million to $65 million in payroll?
The D-backs' questions run far deeper than those of the other teams perceived as underachieving. In the case of the Red Sox, they need Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order, while Lester and Buchholz seem to be emerging as front-end pitchers, they need to get Josh Beckett healthy, dice that 4.94 starters' ERA and somehow figure out the mystery of Daisuke Matsuzaka. In the case of the Cubs, they have to get Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez hitting and have Carlos Zambrano accept accountability for his role on the pitching staff.
In the case of the White Sox, Williams believes it is obvious.
"Look, Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle [prior to Friday] and Gavin Floyd haven't pitched as well as they can," said Williams. "And we have several of our regular players, like Gordon Beckham and Carlos Quentin and Mark Teahen, who haven't hit to their capabilities. I know what these players have done. I know their career norms. For the time being, we have to wait it out and expect that these players perform as their career norms say they will. Do I make calls now? Of course, and no one wants to do what I propose, and I don't blame them. I'm not blowing this team up.
"Now, in time, if things don't come around, I may be thinking differently. But this is a team that in Spring Training we believed was going to be good based on the career performances of the players. Less than two months into the season we can't start trying to change everything."
Billy Beane has long maintained that general managers spend the first two months seeing what they have, the next two months trying to figure out what they need and how to get it, then the last two months making a run. Five weeks from now, Williams, Epstein, Byrnes, Jim Hendry, Wilpon, et al will have a far better idea of what they have, what they need and whether they can get what they want.
"Now," says Williams, "it's crazy to begin talking about blowing things up."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.