By Mike Ivcic
As April wraps up and the calendar flips to May, it’s time for a little feature we like to call “Five Up, Five Down.” We take a look at five players who have completely outpaced and outperformed preseason expectations, as well as five players who desperately need a better May just to get back to their career average numbers. This is not an all-inclusive list, but rather one writer’s opinion on some of the game’s biggest surprises so far this year. We’re guessing you might have an idea as to who leads the down list, but firstâ¦
1. Matt Kemp (CF, LA Dodgers)
Sure, he was second in the NL MVP voting last year and many expected at least that from Kemp this season too, but what he’s doing right now is otherworldly. In 23 games, Kemp now has 12 homeruns, putting him on pace for an 84-homer season. That would be a record. He’s also hitting .417 with 25 RBI’s, leading all three Triple Crown categories after a month. I said this Dodgers team would be improved and could possibly compete, but quite frankly they’re not a good team. They’re just getting great performances from Clayton Kershaw and Andre Ethier, and then this from their best player. It may or may not continue, but for now L.A. fans are just enjoying the ride.
2. Johan Santana (SP, NY Mets)
If I wanted a Met, I could have gone with David Wright here, who has rediscovered his confidence now that it doesn’t take a 3-wood to hit the ball out of Citi Field. But it’s Santana who’s been the most impressive pitcher of the first month in either league. Just a year removed from shoulder surgery (which experts say is almost twice as difficult from which to recover as elbow surgery), Santana has posted a 2.25 ERA while recording 29 K’s in 24 IP, good for the second-best K/IP ratio in baseball. He has not allowed more than one earned run in four of his five starts, and has outpitched guys like Matt Cain, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Mark Buehrle. He’d also have more wins if the Mets hadn’t waited until his fifth start of the season before scoring a run while he was in the game.
3. Derek Lowe (SP, Cleveland)
His four-year deal with Atlanta has been panned on multiple “worst contract” countdowns, but suddenly here’s Lowe with the Indians, tied for the AL lead in wins and pitching to a 2.27 ERA. Yes, he’s walked 10 and struck out only 9, but the guy is 38 years old. Cleveland was expecting to get a fourth starter/innings eater out of him. Instead, they’re getting a top-line starter who’s helped them get to 11-9 through a month of the season. Plus, he’s getting better â Lowe allowed just one run through 13.2 innings in his last two starts. If the former Red Sox can continue to channel his inner-2004, Cleveland may really have a chance to stay in the postseason race for the entire season.
4. David Ortiz (DH, Boston)
There were rumors a couple of years ago that Big Papi was done. He was batting barely above .100 in April of 2010, prompting many columnists and commentators to conclude that he was older than he claimed, he was a steroid user, he was injured, or any combination of the three. Now, here we are two years later and Boston’s cleanup hitter is back, batting .405 with 6 HR, 20 RBI, and a .457 OBP. Throughout all of the controversy, he’s also served well as the team’s elder statesman, fielding questions and playing peacemaker while avoiding any involvement in the turmoil. As the Red Sox possibly begin to turn the corner, they can thank Ortiz for even having a corner to turn after the first 22 games.
5. Edwin Encarnacion (3B, Toronto)
Not too long ago, the Reds traded this guy for a past-his-prime Scott Rolen because they felt more confident in four years worth of Rolen’s production than they did about ever getting anything from the enigmatic Encarnacion. While the Reds did win a division and Rolen has been an integral part of the maturation of guys like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips, the Blue Jay suddenly have some added pop in the batting order to compliment Jose Bautista. He’s batting .322 through April and is second to Josh Hamilton in AL homeruns with 8 â not bad for a guy with a .262 career average and .460 career slugging percentage. Toronto kept saying they liked their young players, and while Edwin is now 29, his emergence certainly buoys theJays hopes of competing in the rugged AL East.
Honorable Mention: Barry Zito (SFG), David Freese (STL), David Wright (NYM), Joe Saunders (ARZ), Josh Willingham (MIN), Adam LaRoche (WAS), Jake Peavy (CHW), Ross Detwiler (WAS), Chris Capuano (LAD), Jose Altuve (HOU)
1. Albert Pujols (1B, LA Angels)
You were expecting maybe Phil Hughes? No, the most disappointing player in April is clearly Sir Albert, who has zero homeruns and 4 RBI’s so far this season. Perhaps even more worrisome than those numbers is his .265 OBP. Pujols has always had a tremendous eye at the plate, able to take walks in big spots if he wasn’t getting his pitch. Obviously his lack of production at the plate is a product of not seeing the ball well and pitchers not afraid to challenge him, but six walks in 98 plate appearances is a clear sign that something is wrong. The argument has been made that it’s mostly a result of switching leagues, but this guy is too smart and too good to be affected this long just from that. The Angels playoff hopes rest on Albert figuring this out quickly.
2. Tim Lincecum (SP, San Francisco)
Yes, he has started to straighten out after a rough start, but there’s no way the Giants will reach the postseason if their ace continues to pitch to even his current ERA of 5.74. The strikeouts are still there (29 in 26.2 IP), but he’s also allowed 29 hits and 13 walks in those innings, good for a 1.58 WHIP. For reference, the former Cy Young winner has a 3.05 career ERA and 1.20 WHIP, i.e. he’s struggling. He went 8 innings in his last start, impressive considering he had managed just 18.2 innings though his first 4 starts â not even averaging 5 IP/start. Teammate Barry Zito has helped compensate for Timmy’s rough start, but just imagine this rotation if this guy’s able to get back to his former self.
3. Rickie Weeks (2B, Milwaukee)
When the Brewers lost Prince Fielder to the Tigers in free agency, they plugged the hole in the lineup with Aramis Ramirez, then hoped everyone else in the order would increase their production slightly to make up for the gap at cleanup. Instead, Weeks has limped out of the gate with a .186 average and just 6 RBI’s â not good for the guy who last year was the protection for Fielder in the lineup. He does have an on base percentage of .320, which might be one of the season’s most amazing lines (.186/.320/.360) but he’s also struck out 28 times in just 86 at bats, meaning he’s also been killing the Brewers when he’s hit at the top of the order, too. If he doesn’t get up to .250 and start driving in runs soon, Milwaukee’s hopes at a repeat in the NL Central are gone, no matter what their pitching does.
4. Jose Reyes (SS, Miami)
Another big-contract free agent that has yet to produce dividends for his current team, Reyes is mired at .220 with just four stolen bases in seven attempts. That’s not what the Marlins were hoping for when they lured him away from their division rivals. His 9 walks are a positive, sure, but a leadoff hitter with a .293 OBP and only six runs scored through his team’s first 20 games is not a recipe for success. Miami’s pitching has actually been fairly good, and Hanley Ramirez is showing signs of waking up, but much like the Mets’ success the past seven seasons, the Marlins win totals won’t start moving in the right direction until their catalyst at the top of the order starts getting on base and coming across the plate with a much higher frequency.
5. Mat Latos (SP, Cincinnati)
When a playoff-contending team trades for you to be the ace of their pitching staff, they expect a bit more than 1-2 with a 5.97 ERA. Such is the case, however, for the Reds with Latos, who’s allowed 35 hits through 28.2 innings pitched this season. All 19 runs allowed have been earned, too, so it’s not as if the defense behind him isn’t playing well. He is only 24 years old, so perhaps adjusting to the new expectations has been slower than expected, but he entered with a career WHIP of 1.15 and has thrown to a 1.57 number so far this year. Clearly, Cincinnati is not San Diego, both with the weather and the ballpark, so perhaps a jump in numbers was to be expected, but Latos will have to get better if the Reds have any ideas of challenging St. Louis in the NL Central.
Dishonorable Mention: Yovani Gallardo (MIL), Chone Figgins (SEA), Eric Hosmer (KCR), Ryan Roberts (ARZ), Clay Buchholz (BOS), Josh Johnson (MIA), Erick Aybar (LAA), Ervin Santana (LAA), Marlon Byrd (BOS), Jose Bautista (TOR)
Three series to watch this weekâ¦
1) BAL @ NYY (4/30-5/2) â Baltimore has been the league’s biggest surprise, but now faces a tough challenge in their first trip to the Bronx. Just winning one of three would go a long way towards helping the team’s confidence.
2) PHI @ ATL (5/1-5/3) â Philly enters a crucial stretch with Atlanta, Washington, and the Mets in the next three series. They can either get back in the race or possibly fall far enough out to make a sixth straight division title a near impossibility.
3) ARZ @ WAS (5/1-5/3) â The Nats have lost four straight, while the D-backs need to stay on the winning track. Also big is Tuesday’s game â Bryce Harper’s home debut.
If the season ended today, the playoff teams would beâ¦
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Washington Nationals
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets
1. Texas Rangers
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. New York Yankees
Check out my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday and the weekly “Power Rankings” every Friday, only at ultimatecapper.com
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