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The Baseball Notebook


April 25, 2010 6:24 PM

Pinellia's Bold Move

The story that rocked baseball in Week 3 was Cubs manager Lou Pinellia’s stunning decision to put Carlos Zambrano in the bullpen. Upon hearing the news, my first reaction was that Sweet Lou, whom I hold in high regard as a skipper, had blown a fuse. Putting Zambrano in the pen as a way to shake up the team seemed to me to be akin to Phil Jackson deciding to shake up the Lakers for Game 5 against Oklahoma City by announcing Kobe Bryant would be the sixth man. Sure, it would shock, sure the sixth man is important, but it would also be self-evidently stupid.

But I looked at the numbers and at Pinellia’s options and suddenly a manager who’s got a long track record of success and a World Series ring on his finger (1990 Reds) didn’t seem so stupid. And maybe the move was about a lot more than throwing a shock into his team. Chicago has four starters pitching well right now—Ryan Dempster, Carlos Silva, Randy Wells and Tom Gorzelanny all have ERAs under 3, and the first two on that list have been virtually unhittable. Ted Lilly is back off the DL and threw six shutout innings this weekend in Milwaukee. Who’s the odd man out? The guy with the 7.40 ERA would be the logical answer and that’s Carlos Zambrano. The only reason not to move Zambrano to the pen would be as deference to his $37 million salary. And showing that big dollars on the contract aren’t a justification for a bloated ERA is the kind of shock value that’s healthy for a team to see. It also doesn’t hurt that Pinellia strengthened his team’s most obvious weakness, and that’s the bridge from the starters to Carlos Marmol at the end. Zambrano’s fiery emotional temperament might be well-suited to for the short daily bursts his job requires. If he makes it work, Chicago will win the NL Central. The experiment got off to a good start, with Zambrano getting key outs in a Saturday night over the Brewers, a series the Cubs swept.

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San Diego’s win streak came to an end today in Cincinnati, but that’s about the only thing that went wrong for those spunky Padres. San Diego swept the Giants, took two of three from the Reds and moved to the top of the NL West. Unsurprisingly, a key to the Pads success has been extraordinary hitting from Adrian Gonzalez, highlighted by five home runs for the season. Chase Headley has also been a fantastic all-around offensive threat, and Will Venable is muscling up, having hit four home runs. But for a team in Petco Park, the signature is pitching. San Diego is at the top of the National League in ERA. No one pitcher is off to a blazing start, but the rotation is very consistent top to bottom, with ERAs ranging from 2.86 to 3.38. One area of potential concern is closer Heath Bell. On the surface there’s nothing to be alarmed about as he’s getting his saves. But he’s allowing baserunners at an alarming rate for a top closer. With a WHIP of 1.67, either that stat comes down or the ERA and blown saves eventually go up. One or the other.

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With yet another season in danger of seeing them fall underneath the long shadow of the Yankees, the crosstown Mets saw an uptick in their fortunes this week. They opened the week by winning a series against Chicago and they’ve taken the first two against Atlanta in a series that ends tonight on ESPN. New York got quality pitching from Jonathan Niese, who posted a 0.82 ERA in two starts and from Francisco Rodriguez who saved three games. Offensively, Jose Reyes and Jason Bay both awake from slumps, while Ike Davis also had a big week. It was more than enough to compensate for the cooling off of David Wright.

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One town where life hasn’t been real great this week is in Pittsburgh. While the main story was the NFL’s suspension of Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first six games of the season, the fortunes—or misfortunes of the hapless Pirates also deserve mention. Pittsburgh lost all six games this week. They fell to Milwaukee by a stunning 20-0 count—the same Brewer team that would be swept by the then-reeling Cubs. But that was just an appetizer. Pittsburgh was swept this weekend by Houston, who had been far and away MLB’s worst team the first two weeks. The Pirate rotation has two pitchers with ERAs over 13. The players were the most at-bats—Akinori Iwamura, Lastings Milledge and Andrew McCrutchen—have done nothing at the plate. Closer Octavio Dotel has a 7.71 ERA. Much like my current hometown of Baltimore saw its hopes for an end to their streak of losing seasons come quickly crashing down, so to does my old hometown of Pittsburgh. And my original hometown of Milwaukee didn’t turn it around until I was out of the city for eight years. The Flaherty Curse lives. Maybe I should move to the Bronx.

See you Monday afternoon for a look at what’s ahead in Week 4.

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