Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: Hey Tony, what's wrong with the Angels? Is it time to write them off?
— Jason, Los Angeles
A: Although no team was more disappointing in April, it's still way too early for that, Jason. The Angels are struggling with the burden of expectation that comes with adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to a team that won 86 games last season, but there's too much talent there to write them off as a non-playoff contender.
It's not hard to find teams that had losing Aprils, yet went onto the postseason. There has been one in four of the past five seasons: the 2011 Diamondbacks (11-15 in April), the 2010 Braves (9-14), the 2009 Rockies (8-12), and 2007 Yankees (9-14). And remember, there is second wild-card spot for the first time this season.
However, what the Angels' 8-15 April has done is put them in a nine-game hole behind the Rangers in the AL West. Making up that big of a deficit against the majors' best team isn't going to be easy. And the new playoff format — two wild cards meeting in a one-game playoff while the three division champions get a couple of days rest and to set their rotations — is going to make it tougher for wild-card teams to go all the way through the playoffs.
As for the Angels' problems, let's rank them in order of severity and likelihood to continue:
1. Bullpen: It wasn't hard to pinpoint this as a potential weak spot, and Jordan Walden's demotion from the closer role has exacerbated the situation. Scott Downs has been underrated and much more than a left-handed specialist for the past few seasons, and most likely can be a solid closer if remains in that spot.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
2. Lineup composition: Last year's lineup overachieved with lesser personnel; this one still is trying to gel. Roles and playing time remain uncertain, as Bobby Abreu has been released and Mike Trout promoted, and who knows exactly how Mark Trumbo will get his at-bats.
All of which has put a lot of pressure on players who are trying to settle into playing time and spots in the order. And of course, it doesn't help when the offensive leader is going through adjustment struggles of his own.
So you have an offense averaging only 3.5 runs per game in April, second-worst in the AL. This isn't an elite offense such as those in Texas and New York. But it should be, and likely will be in time, at least middle-of-the-AL-pack.
3. Pujols' track record speaks for itself, as in first-ballot Hall of Famer. The adjustments to new pitchers and ballparks are taking more time than anticipated, especially after his blistering spring in Arizona, but you have to assume he will return to his norm very soon, with a possible down-tick, but nothing major.
With the exception of Ervin Santana (0-5), the rotation has been excellent. Kendrys Morales is healthy and figures to get more productive with more at-bats after his long layoff. Erick Aybar also dramatically underachieved in April, and Trout's impact could be significant both offensively and defensively.
So bottom line, I'm still thinking the Angels can straighten things out, win 90 or more games and get to the playoffs.
Q. Tony, you picked the Diamondbacks to repeat as NL West champs. But with the way they have started out, do you think that fans should start to worry? I know it's a long season, and they traditionally are slow starters, but I can't help but worry because of injuries and players not playing up to their level.
— Howard Hudson, Tucson
A. How soon you forget, Howard. The Diamondbacks' 2011 season is the latest example I point to about putting too much emphasis on early-April results.
Remember that into mid-May last season, they were 15-22, and apparently going nowhere. But a serious of things started coming together, led by J.J. Putz and David Hernandez at the back end of the bullpen, and you know the rest of the story — a totally unexpected 31-game improvement from 2010 and a division title.
As I've written before, teams coming off dramatic improvements of this sort almost always regress the following season. In fact, in the last 50 years, teams that improved by at least 25 games from their previous season have averaged 11 fewer wins in the season after that improvement. So the Diamondbacks are fighting a strong historical trend here.
And as you mention, this season already has produced its share of concerns, led by injuries to Daniel Hudson and Chris Young, the somewhat expected regressions of Ryan Roberts and Josh Collmenter, and the struggles of lefty specialist Joe Paterson, who has been sent to the minors.
Young carried the offense for the first few weeks before injuring his shoulder. But he should be fine in a couple of weeks. Justin Upton already is showing signs of getting over a thumb injury that slowed him in April, and remember that Stephen Drew finally should be back in the lineup at some point, probably June.
The Hudson injury (shoulder impingement) is potentially the most troubling. As D-backs fans know due to the sad injury-related demise of Brandon Webb, the term "impingement" can have serious ramifications. So you have to hope Hudson's case is a relatively mild one, and that he can pitch effectively soon.
That said, arguably no team in the majors is better equipped to handle rotation adversity than the D-backs. They already have moved underrated Wade Miley from the long-reliever role to the rotation, and promoted Patrick Corbin from their dominant Double-A Mobile rotation, and still have Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs in reserve.
There are many in the scouting community who feel Bauer is an emerging ace, and already should be in the D-backs' rotation. Given his early success in Double-A, you can expect to see him when the next need arises.
I still see the D-backs as the most-balanced team in the NL West, and capable of winning 90 games and the division title, or at least a wildcard spot. But the division is very fluid, with little separating the top three teams and possibly the Rockies, and a couple of key injuries/developments could dramatically affect the division race.
In fact, you can say that about the entire NL playoff picture, as there is no powerhouse team in the league.
Q. You often see an umpire line up well off the plate to see a pitch. How can they see whether a pitch is over the opposite side of the plate?
— Art C., Forestburg, Alberta, Canada
A. No matter where the umpire sets up — either just off the catcher's right or left shoulder, or directly behind him — the umpire has to stand tall enough so that the catcher doesn't block his view of the entire plate.
That's really all there is to it. But the reality is, pitches with so much velocity and movement sometimes are tough to call. Pitchers are trying to hit corners, and that's why so many pitches in every game are borderline, making the home-plate umpire's job a very tough one.
HBT: Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
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