Saturday

4-28-12: Looking For Stories During A Rain Delay

So what does one do while it's raining at Target Field? Look around the Majors for another story. That's the beauty of baseball: there's always something interesting going on.

Two kids... two franchises... two wildly different sets of circumstances, neither of which would've been predicted heading into the season.

The Los Angeles Angels signed two of the biggest free agent names available this past off-season: three-time MVP Albert Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson - fresh off two consecutive appearances in the World Series with the Texas Rangers. Combined with a lineup that already featured speed and power along with a starting rotation that had two All-Star pitchers in it, and the Angels were expected to contend not only for their division, but for the American League pennant and perhaps a World Championship.

So far it hasn't worked out that way.

Pujols has yet to get untracked. His slash line of .225/.279/.313 is well below his career average of .327/.419/.613. He's yet to hit his first home run in the American League and has only 18 hits in 86 plate appearances.

So is Albert struggling to figure out a new set of pitchers? He doesn't seem to think so:
“I don’t like to look for excuses — I don’t want to blame my struggles on being in a new league. It’s the same game. Does it help if you’ve seen a guy before? Of course. But I still do the same preparation. To tell you the truth, I feel good. I’m not far away from breaking out of this.” (Quote courtesy of the L.A. Times)
C.J. Wilson didn't switch leagues; he didn't even switch divisions. His numbers so far in 2012 (2.42 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 9.0 K/9) are actually ahead of his career averages (3.56 ERA, 1.283 WHIP, 8.1 K/9), and yet have resulted in a record of 2-2 in his four starts.

Put simply, the Angels are struggling to score runs. Their 74 runs scored has them next to last in the American League. Yes, even the 5-15 Twins have scored more runs than the Halos.

Enter: super-rookie Mike Trout. Trout's been one of the highest-ranked prospects in baseball for the last couple of years. He's a five-tool player that Los Angeles plans on having in their outfield for years to come.

That being said, his presence in the Angels line up is no guarantee of immediate success. In 40 games with the big club last season, Trout hit .220/.281/.390. He showed flashes of his power potential with 11 extra-base hits in 123 at-bats, but was nowhere near the consistent threat he's projected to be.

Perhaps he'll add a spark to the LA lineup, but there's no evidence that he'll be able to walk in the door and carry the load on his own from the get-go. The best the Angels can hope for is that his presence takes some of the attention (and pressure) away from Pujols, which would hopefully allow him to get back to his regular form. A hot-swinging Albert will do far more to solve the Angels' woes than having Trout in the everyday lineup will.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the Washington Nationals. Expected to improve in 2012 - and with all of those high draft picks finally starting to filter up to the big leagues, how could they not - they were still considered to be a non-factor in a division containing the consistently-talented Philadelphia Phillies, the rock-solid Atlanta Braves and the wheeling-dealing, ill-accoutered Miami Marlins.

(Seriously, those uniforms are horrible and their new ballpark looks like a poorly-designed amusement park.)

Twenty games into the season, however, the Nationals find themselves on top of the AL East by a game over Atlanta with a 14-6 record.

Washington isn't lighting up the scoreboard either. They've actually scored fewer runs than the Angels, though seeing as how they reside in the National League, their 71 runs-scored ranks them 12th (out of 16 teams) as opposed to to L.A.'s 13th (out of 14 teams).

So what's the secret to Washington's success? Their pitching. They've allowed only 53 runs in their 20 games - a MLB-leading number. Their team ERA of 2.25 also leads the Majors, their 1.07 WHIP trails only the Cardinals, and their 8.64 K/9 trails only the Yankees and Brewers.

Their starters are going deep into games (123.1 IP in 20 games) and shutting down hitters (1.75 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 8.36 K/9) and while their bullpen hasn't been quite as good, it's been more than serviceable (3.26 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.05 K/9).

While they're enjoying plenty of success so far, those pitching numbers probably aren't sustainable and without some offensive improvement, that means their record will be regressing to the mean sooner than later.

So when an offensively-challenged club loses one of their top hitters (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman) to the disabled list, what do they do? Well if you're Washington, you call up perhaps the most highly-touted prospect in recent memory, outfielder Bryce Harper.

 The number one overall draft pick in 2010 has made plenty of headlines in his career, from leaving high school early to help improve his draft status to blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher after hitting a home run in a Class-A game last year. While some have questions about his character, no one can deny his obvious potential.

In three minor league seasons, Harper's amassed a slash-line of .290/.383/.481 with 18 home runs and 49 total extra-base hits in 459 at-bats. At just 19 years old, Bryce becomes the youngest player ever to suit up for the Nationals, and Washington's brass is being very careful not to overload the young man so early in his career. GM Mike Rizzo said:
“We still have a very good and committed plan for Bryce. I still believe very passionately in the plan, and we are going to be very committed to it. But this is [a move made] by the circumstances -- by two of our middle-of-the-lineup guys going down. And we felt we needed to bring in a left-handed bat that can play the corner outfield.” (quote courtesy of MLB.com)
So while Harper's stay in the Big Leagues might not be lengthy, he'll get plenty of playing time while he's up.

One club underachieving and making a move out of desperation, another club overachieving and making a move out of necessity. Will either player have an immediate or significant impact on their clubs? In baseball, you never can tell until they get on the field. Trout is trying to take the field in Cleveland, though - like here in Minnesota - the weather's not cooperating. Harper makes his Major League debut tonight in Los Angeles as the Nationals face the Dodgers.

So while it's still dreary and raining in Minnesota, there's always something interesting going on in baseball somewhere!

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