Friday, April 19, 2013
Five early surprises: Can they keep it up?
By Jim Bowden
Acquiring Paul Maholm from the Cubs in 2012 has worked out extremely well for Atlanta.
During spring training, it's not easy to recognize which performances and numbers are legit and which are merely mirages. Spring numbers are never a truly accurate barometer of what to expect from a player during the season. Likewise, early-season numbers are almost as deceiving.
The following five players have enjoyed success early in 2013, but what are we to make of it? Could their terrific play in the first three weeks of the season foreshadow a breakout campaign? Whether resulting from more playing time or new skills acquired in the offseason, this group is performing at a high level right now. The only question is, can they keep it up?
1. Paul Maholm | LHP | Atlanta Braves Last July, the Braves attempted to acquire Ryan Dempster from the Cubs, but Dempster exercised his no-trade clause. So the Braves instead traded prospects for another Cubs starter in Paul Maholm. It was fortuitous for the Braves as they later used the prospects offered in the Dempster trade to acquire Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks. More important, Maholm has simply been more successful than Dempster since the trade.
Maholm is 3-0 this year with a 0.00 ERA, yielding just 11 hits in 20 1/3 innings pitched while striking out 20 and walking just five. As Senior VP and GM Frank Wren described him to me this week, Maholm “has become a top-flight command-and-control left-handed starter.”
Maholm now has command of all of his pitches and varies speeds from an extra-slow curveball (which was described to me by Evan Gattis as an eephus pitch) to a fastball that touches 90 and all speeds in between. He is really hard to square up and will produce a bunch of very uncomfortable 0-for-4’s. Maholm has been so consistent since last May that Wren believes Maholm has finally figured out that this is who “he is.” This is the type of left-hander that gives good hitters fits, and I agree with Wren, that Maholm is for real and heading toward a 15-win season.
2. Jean Segura | SS | Milwaukee Brewers Last July, when the Milwaukee Brewers traded ace pitcher Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for a package centered on middle infielder Jean Segura, most experts felt the Brewers didn’t get enough and that Segura might end up being a utility player rather than a middle infield solution. Segura’s slash line .264/.321/.331 last season for the Brewers was for the most part unimpressive, but he hit three triples and stole seven bases in eight attempts, which offered some rays of optimism.
However, once Segura reported to spring training this season, he quickly started showing that not only could he play shortstop, but he also had bat potential that was much better than most people thought. His quick start to the season including a .415 batting average has a lot of people talking and scouts scribbling into notepads.
Segura has a great attitude and tremendous feel for the game. He has extremely quick hands and feet. He has above-average arm strength, but what impresses general manager Doug Melvin the most is his accuracy when moving both to his left and coming in on slow rollers. Segura’s quick hands are also evident in his hitting. He does not try to do too much at the plate and sprays the ball to all fields. Segura doesn’t walk enough yet, but he does not chase balls out of the zone either.
Melvin credits pro scouting director Zack Minasian and his staff in particular to keeping Segura at shortstop when most of the industry thought he’d have to move to second base. Although I don’t think Segura will be a .300 hitter come season’s end, I do think he’ll be able to sustain success and be the long-term shortstop for the Brewers.
3. Matt Adams | 1B | St. Louis Cardinals Both VP and GM John Mozeliak and Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny told me about Adams a couple of years ago, assuring me he would develop into an impact middle-of-the-order bat. Adams had a lot of success offensively in his minor league career, but when he was called up last season he struggled. It’s not easy to go from an everyday player to a part-time role player in the major leagues and have consistent at-bats. This year it’s been much easier for the Cards to envision more consistent playing time; Adams has made the most of the opportunities he has been given this season.
Adams is off to a ridiculous start, hitting .611 with three home runs. Matheny told me earlier this week he plans on getting Adams regular starts, which means the rest of the regulars will soon be complaining about getting too much rest. But that’s how much they think of Adams’ bat.
However, with Allen Craig at first base, Carlos Beltran in right field and Matt Holliday in left field, I can’t imagine that Adams will get the at-bats he needs. If his role is merely starting twice a week, I doubt he’ll be able to keep up the pace the entire year. It’s just too difficult for a young player to stay sharp without consistent at-bats. I agree with Mozeliak and Matheny that Adams is for real. Unfortunately for Adams, super prospect Oscar Taveras awaits in the minor leagues, Holliday is signed long term and Craig is entrenched in the cleanup spot. A trade to an American League club might even be more likely than playing every day and living up to his potential in St. Louis.
4. John Buck | C | New York Mets Most of the offseason, the excitement for Mets fans centered on the acquisition of one of the game’s best catching prospects, Travis d’Arnaud from the Toronto Blue Jays. However, in the early going this season, the player producing the most for the Mets offensively and defensively has been Buck, the “other” catcher in the deal with Toronto. As one executive told me, Buck was the “hidden gem” of the deal. Buck, 32, has really improved him game-calling skills over the last few years and his early-season power should not be a surprise: He hit 20 home runs in 2010 and has 12 or more home runs in six of his 10 years in the majors.
That being said, hitting .300 to start the year is probably an aberration, and I would expect by season’s end his average will be closer to his lifetime average of .237. He’ll also probably be traded for the fourth time in three years -- perhaps to a contender -- when the Mets are ready to promote D’Arnaud to the big leagues, although that could change with word this week that d'Arnaud has a broken bone in his foot.
5. Wilin Rosario | C | Colorado Rockies When I walked into Rockies camp this spring, there was one hitter every Rockies player raved about: catcher Wilin Rosario. Todd Helton told me, “Forty home runs -- book it.” Carlos Gonzalez told me Rosario had the most power on the team -- more than Tulowitzki and more than Gonzalez himself. Tulowitzki told me that Rosario was going to hit, and it wasn’t just power.
Sure enough, when I got near the batting cage the sound off Rosario’s bat was deafening, and the power was right along the lines of what Helton, Gonzalez and Tulowitzki had told me. I then interviewed Rosario for my radio show. Talk about impressive. He’s intelligent, down to earth, humble with a sense of humor. Now if he can reduce the passed balls and improve the game-calling, the Rockies might just have one of the best right-handed power-hitting catchers in baseball. Can he keep this up? Considering the endorsements he has received from his general manager and teammates, Rosario is an impact power bat whom everyone should believe in.