- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
On occasion I'm certainly willing to give starting pitchers a break when poor April weather appears to be a factor, but in the case of Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson, even he admitted something is wrong. Johnson was awful Thursday in what became the shortest outing of his career, allowing six runs while retiring only four Detroit Tigers, and although there were miserably cold, rainy conditions in Detroit, the other pitcher (Doug Fister) managed to thrive for eight innings of one-run ball.
Johnson's sub-90 mph velocity -- and this is a broken record throughout baseball -- was seriously down from normal levels Thursday, but it was actually fine last week. The issue isn't his fastball, though, as he explained with interesting honesty to eager reporters postgame.
"I haven't thrown a slider for a strike yet, and I need that pitch," said Johnson, toting an 11.05 ERA and 2.73 WHIP after two starts. "When I'm throwing it for strikes, it is something that the hitters have to think about, but this is two starts now, and it hasn't happened. I didn't have anything today. They were all over my curveball for some reason, and the fastball was just hanging over the plate."
Doesn't sound like promise to me, but again, it's not even mid-April yet and Johnson, the No. 27 starting pitcher in ESPN average live drafts, does bring considerable upside. While I was skeptical of him reaching it, since his move from NL to AL wasn't a plus, his strikeout rate was down last year and let's face it, durability is not a strength, it's too early to give up on him or any of the three Blue Jays' starting pitchers owned in 100 percent of mixed leagues. Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Brandon Morrow have combined for 25 earned runs in 27 2/3 innings, but we're roughly 1/16 through the season, not nearly enough of a sample size to make major decisions. If Johnson can't throw his pitches effectively by May, or looks hurt, then it's reassessment time.
My general take on any top-40 starting pitchers -- and this includes Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay, whom I would absolutely bench before the Miami Marlins light him up Sunday -- is to exercise a bit more patience than two outings. Use your bench, even if it means going with an active middle reliever instead and lacking offensive depth. I rarely use bench spots for hitters, anyway. This is a six-month season, and patience is warranted.
Meanwhile, the high-spending Blue Jays aren't off to nearly the start they had hoped for, and it's not just the rotation, which has been brutal save for lefty J.A. Happ. First baseman Edwin Encarnacion is hitting .143; Melky Cabrera has one run batted in; Emilio Bonifacio can't get on base and has been worse defensively; Brett Lawrie hasn't even played yet. Yet, we look at the calendar and it remains April 12. I'm not making rash decisions with players I trusted two weeks ago. Not yet.
Box score bits (AL): Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout made every one of his 138 starts in 2012 hitting leadoff. On Thursday he batted second. Hey, whatever gets him going, right? Trout's value doesn't change. Perhaps he'll knock in more runs if leadoff hitter Alberto Callaspo, and eventually Erick Aybar, get on base. Callaspo, who generally hits seventh, is more enticing now, especially if the injured Aybar hits the DL, but not really 10-team mixed-league worthy. ... The Chicago White Sox will likely use Jeff Keppinger at second base while Gordon Beckham and his broken wrist miss the next six weeks. Keppinger was already playing regularly at third base and doesn't bring much fantasy upside. Neither does Conor Gillaspie, who played third base Thursday and had two hits. I'm watching prospect Carlos Sanchez at Triple-A Charlotte, but he's 21 and brings no power potential. ... Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz brings much power potential, and he started his rehab assignment from Achilles issues with two hits for Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday. Ortiz could return to the Red Sox in one week, and for some reason he is not 100 percent owned in ESPN leagues. ... Right-hander Aaron Harang certainly isn't 100 percent owned, but he has a new home after the Seattle Mariners acquired him Thursday. It's tough to be a Harang fan, but his ERA the past two seasons was 3.62, and Safeco Field is pitcher-friendly. Spend a buck in AL-only formats. Rookie Brandon Maurer likely gets one more start this weekend to prove he should stay in the big leagues. ... Mariners outfielder Mike Morse suffered a small fracture in the little finger of his right hand when hit by a pitch Thursday and is expected to miss three to seven days. Morse is off to a terrific start, but don't sell high because of this injury. It's pretty minor compared to what happened to Zack Greinke, which will be covered in a separate blog entry.
Box score bits (NL): Washington Nationals right-hander Dan Haren won Thursday, but it wasn't pretty, as he permitted 10 hits (four of them doubles) in five messy innings. Haren fanned five and didn't walk anyone, but his 19 hits allowed in nine innings so far is troubling. ... Chicago Cubs right fielder Nate Schierholtz singled three times Thursday, raising his batting average to .370. I've always wanted to see what the former San Francisco Giant afterthought would do with 500 plate appearances, and we could find out. Schierholtz doesn't have to face lefties and is capable of double-digit homers, for those in NL-only formats.
Eric Karabell offers notes from Thursday's games, including a rough afternoon outing for Josh Johnson in Detroit.