Classic takes its toll on O's players

Many struggle after missing spring games because of event

May 09, 2006|By RICK MAESE

For nearly five months, we follow the baseball playoffs, we study the offseason changes and dissect the winter meetings. But spring training, that's the period we anticipate the most.

In fact, we like spring training so much that any fan who currently wears a grimace while studying the standings undoubtedly wishes we could all go back to spring and do things the right way.

We were quick to declare the World Baseball Classic a success in March. Though the inaugural tournament was competitively intriguing, we might have jumped the gun just a bit. On second thought, the Classic seems to have taken an ugly bite out of the 2006 season.

While numbers throughout the majors appear to show some effect from the nearly three-week tournament, the best example might be right here in Baltimore. Eleven Orioles players missed part of spring training to represent their respective countries, more than any other team except the New York Mets.

One of those players was released and two others were assigned to the minors. So the Orioles began the season with eight players who experienced an abbreviated spring training.

Only two of those eight (Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez) are performing comparably to last season. Another (Daniel Cabrera) has been inconsistent, and the others are playing noticeably worse.

Just look at the numbers: Through the end of April, Javy Lopez was down more than 100 points, and Luis Matos was nearly 200 points lower. For both, you can point to injuries, and that's reasonable. But how would you explain the pitching?

Erik Bedard's ERA at the end of April was 2.84 last season. At the same point this season it was 3.69.

Bruce Chen was 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA through April in 2005. This year, he was 0-3 with a 7.27 ERA.

Rodrigo Lopez was 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA in April last year and was 1-3 with a 6.81 ERA through April this year.

If you go strictly by the numbers, Cabrera seems to be improved over April last season. His 5.68 ERA at the end of April is better than last spring's 7.65.

The Orioles aren't an anomaly. From coast to coast, players who competed in the World Baseball Classic have struggled in the season's opening weeks. (In Seattle alone, Adrian Beltre was hitting just .189 through April, and Ichiro Suzuki started this month at .287, nearly 75 points lower than at this point last season.)

Sure, some are playing well (Albert Pujols, Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones, to name a few), but for further proof, let's visit the leader board.

Through May 1 of last season, seven of the game's 10 highest batting averages were posted by players who went on to compete in the Classic. Currently, only seven of the top 20 hitters played in the tournament.

Six of the top 10 early-season home run hitters from 2005 were Classic players. This year, only four of the 14 players who have at least 10 homers were in the Classic.

It looks even worse for the pitchers. Four of the 10 with the lowest ERAs through May 1 of last season appeared in the Classic. This season, no Classic pitcher has an ERA among the top 10, and there are just two among the top 20.

According to STATS Inc., of the 25 starters who pitched in the Classic, nine entered last weekend with ERAs above 6.00. The group was a combined 43-56 with a 5.34 ERA (non-Classic pitchers were 262-252 with a 4.54 ERA).

Are you wondering in what statistical category we find those Classic pitchers? Most earned runs allowed, of course. Among the 10 pitchers who've allowed the most runs this year, four played in the Classic.

These leader board struggles don't really illustrate the worst of the Classic effect. After all, these are the All-Stars, the players whom you expect to be conditioned, talented and ready to go come Opening Day.

It's the lesser players, the younger players, the still-climbing-the-ladder players who are mostly hurt by missing spring training time.

That's why the Orioles best exemplify the problems wrought by the disruptive Classic. A couple more weeks in Florida wouldn't have solved all of the Orioles' woes. But it would have better prepared them. The Orioles' pitchers are already lacking in credentials and talent. Those young arms needed to be in camp working with new pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

You don't think a bit more time in Fort Lauderdale would've made a difference? Just compare Cabrera's first two outings (a combined eight runs and 16 walks in 6 1/3 innings) with his past two (a combined three runs and three walks in 14 innings).

The World Baseball Classic is a good idea. By the final out, everyone from baseball officials to players to fans had taken notice. With a couple of changes, the event has potential to grow into a global attraction.

But baseball's decision-makers must adjust the schedule before the next Classic in 2009. That leaves a lot of time to consult a calendar and make changes. Surely, the game's leaders are reviewing the early returns and are realizing how cannibalistic it was to disrupt spring training.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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