Is it a mere coincidence that the Dominican Republic's two most dominant relievers in the World Baseball Classic have been far less effective for their major-league clubs?
Maybe. But the early struggles of both the Rays' Fernando Rodney and Orioles' Pedro Strop are raising questions about the impact of the WBC on their respective performances.
Both Rodney, 36, and Strop, 27, played major roles in helping the D.R. win the tournament, combining to work 14 scoreless innings. Together, they struck out 15, allowed four hits and walked only three.
Both, however, also pitched with great frequency in the WBC. Rodney appeared in every one of the D.R.'s games, pitching eight times in 13 days. Strop, meanwhile, worked six times over that span.
Rodney is 4-for-5 in save opportunities with a 3.86 ERA, averaging more than a strikeout per inning -- not bad. But he also has allowed 16 base-runners in 9 1/3 innings, and his stuff is diminished from last season, when he went 48-for-50 in save chances and had a 0.60 ERA.
Strop, meanwhile, has allowed 18 base-runners in 11 innings and already given up as many home runs as he did in 2012 -- two. His ERA stands at 5.73, up from 2.44 last season, when he emerged as an elite setup man.
Naturally, officials with the Rays and Orioles wonder if the heavy workloads and extreme intensity of the WBC had a negative impact on their respective relievers. But there is no way to know if a true cause-and-effect is taking place.
The season is barely 20 percent complete, making it difficult to pass judgment. If Rodney and Strop already are "out of gas," they probably would have faded this season, anyway. And WBC or not, neither was guaranteed to duplicate his 2012 success -- particularly Rodney.
On the other hand, while a closer such as Rodney might pitch eight times in 13 days at high intensity during the season, he certainly would not do it in any other circumstances in mid-March.
The D.R. coaches operated within the WBC rules, which require one day of rest for a reliever who throws 30 or more pitches in an outing or works on back-to-back days. Giants righty Santiago Casilla, who appeared in five games for the D.R., has been quite effective, stranding 16 of 19 inherited runners and holding opponents to a .590 OPS. But the questions only will grow louder if Rodney and Strop experience continued dropoffs.
Tournament officials need to stay flexible. A further tightening of restrictions on relievers might not be a bad idea.
THE PROBLEM WITH PRICE
David Price's velocity is indeed less than it was in his first seven starts last season. His four-seam fastball is averaging 92.7 mph, down nearly two mph, and his two-seamer is averaging 93.3, down 1.2 mph, according to Fangraphs.com (Price throws his two-seamer with greater frequency).
The Rays, however, believe that Price's pitch selection and location are greater issues than his velocity; he's leaving too many pitches in the middle of the plate rather than painting on the inner and outer third.
The problem is particularly acute with his curveball -- the opponents' OPS is .989 on Price's curve, compared to .351 last season. But Price also is getting hit harder with his changeup (.844 opponents' OPS in '13, .639 in '12), two-seamer (.865-.637) and four-seamer (.798-.657).
HOUSTON, WE'VE GOT MORE PROBLEMS
From the first day of spring training -- heck, even before -- Astros officials privately have expressed confidence that the team would be better than its critics predicted.
Well, it's not.
And it makes one wonder: How can the Astros even consider trading right-handers Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell when their rotation is sporting a 6.53 ERA and averaging fewer than five innings per start?
How far do they want to take this?
How bad do they want to get?
Norris (3.89 ERA) and Harrell (5.03) haven't been great, but they're by far the most stable members of the rotation -- a rotation that currently includes two veterans, lefty Erik Bedard (7.36) and righty Philip Humber (8.82) who might not be around much longer.
The Astros could summon youngsters from the minors if general manager Jeff Luhnow purged or traded veterans. But trades of Norris and/or Harrell -- moves that the team has contemplated for some time -- would put the youngsters in difficult spots and risk damaging their futures.
A baseball season is not a laboratory experiment. As a rival executive warned this spring, the Astros' inability to compete might scar not only their players, but also shake the faith of fans who want to believe in the team's plan.
One scout said Monday that second baseman Jose Altuve is the Astros' only solid position player. Well, Norris and Harrell are their only respectable starting pitchers. Trading them in the middle of the season would only lead to further chaos.
PIRATES' COLE: COMING SOON
A scout who saw right-hander Gerrit Cole's most recent start at Triple A says, "he could go now" -- meaning, straight into the Pirates' major-league rotation.
Cole, the first overall choice in the 2011 draft, boasts a 2.45 ERA after six starts. He is throwing 94 to 98 mph while featuring a nasty slider, good curveball and occasional change, the scout says.
The Pirates, though, likely will give left-hander Francisco Liriano, righty Charlie Morton and maybe even righty Jeff Karstens opportunities before Cole.
Liriano, coming off a broken humerus in his non-pitching arm, is expected to make his first start Saturday against the Mets. Morton, coming off Tommy John surgery, endured a recent setback due to tightness in the back of his right shoulder, but before that the Pirates were seeing signs that he could regain his 2011 form. Karstens is working his way back from shoulder soreness.
Cole has struck out only 21 while walking 17 in 29 1/3 innings, but he makes frequent use of his sinker, the scout says, contributing to his low strikeout total.
In any case, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington maintains that the team will not rush Cole or its other top pitching prospect, Double A righty Jameson Taillon.
"They'll have to work their way into our plans," Huntington says. "We built this club to not be dependent upon one or both having to get here. We built this club so they can get here when they're ready."
THE IMPORTANCE OF HEADLEY
Want to know why the Padres are eager to sign third baseman Chase Headley to a contract extension?
Consider the middle of their order without him.
Right fielder Carlos Quentin, signed through 2015, has never played more than 131 games in a season, and averaged 102 the previous two.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal, currently serving a 50-game suspension for testosterone, faces questions about his legitimacy. First baseman Yonder Alonso isn't a true power threat, and second baseman Jedd Gyorko is only a rookie.
The Padres went 4-10 when Headley was out with a broken left thumb. They're 9-8 since his return, though their run production is only slightly better.
Headley, by declining to negotiate with the Padres during the season, clearly is confident that his 2012 breakout wasn't a fluke. He surely knows that if he were traded, his new team would want to sign him to an extension before he hits the open market at the end of '14.
THE CUBBIE QUANDARY
Headley, who turns 29 on Thursday, would be perfect for the Cubs, who could add him to a core of young position players that already includes first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro and three elite prospects -- shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Albert Amora and Jorge Soler.
Pitching remains the problem for the Cubs -- and it's a big problem. The shortage in their system has forced them to sign free agents such as Edwin Jackson, who has a 6.39 ERA after seven starts, and Scott Baker, who has yet to pitch this season due to a strained elbow. And unlike say, the Cardinals, the Cubs don't have relievers in the minors, either.
So, look for the Cubs to remain aggressive on the waiver wire, and why not? The Braves' Eric O'Flaherty and Orioles' Darren O'Day are examples of relievers who achieved career breakthroughs after getting claimed on waivers.
MORTGAGING THE FUTURE, PART II
I wrote Sunday about how the Angels have traded away virtually an entire young rotation. Well, let's not forget the Dodgers, who did the same thing in a one-month span last season.
Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa went to the Red Sox in last August's blockbuster, Nate Eovaldi to the Marlins for Hanley Ramirez, Ethan Martin to the Phillies for Shane Victorino.
Eovaldi is on the 60-day DL with a shoulder injury and De La Rosa and Martin are off to poor starts at Triple A. But Webster is a potential No. 2 or 3 starter, and the question remains:
Why did the Dodgers give up any top prospects in a deal in which they assumed more than $260 million in salaries?
The Angels' Mark Trumbo, who had more than 3,000 plate appearances in the minors, isn't about to lose his sense of perspective.
Trumbo, 27, has eight homers and a .912 OPS in 140 plate appearances, but here's how he responded over the weekend when I asked him if he was reaching another level:
"I'm having competitive at-bats. I'm moving around a little in the lineup, which I'm happy doing. I've semi-proven what type of a player I am. There are a lot of areas I continue to work on to be the best complement to the lineup I can be, whether it be offensively or defensively."
That's right, he said, "complement."
Trumbo added of his hot start, "It doesn't last forever. If you take your foot off the gas pedal, you'll be right back where you don't want to be. Especially for a young guy without a long-term deal, you've got to bring it each and every day."
AROUND THE HORN
- Orioles right-hander Freddy Garcia is a study in perseverance. This is the fourth time since 2008 that he has returned to the majors after signing a minor-league contract; he previously did it with the Tigers, White Sox and Yankees.
Garcia, 36, says that for a lot of veterans in the minors, "their body is there, but their mind is here" -- meaning, "The Show." He admits that the bus rides at Triple A are "brutal," but says the key is to avoid getting frustrated and do everything possible to earn a promotion.
Good advice -- particularly for all those veterans who refuse to sign minor-league contracts in an attempt to extend their careers.
- Hey, let's give Indians first baseman Mark Reynolds credit for becoming a better hitter. He has reached base in 20 consecutive games, and his strikeout rate is in decline for the fourth straight season.
- Does the Rays' pitching ever run out?
Three of their Triple A starters have sub-3.00 ERAs -- left-hander Alex Torres (2.08) and righties Jake Odorizzi (2.65) and Alex Colome (2.84). And righty Chris Archer (4.06) threw six scoreless innings in his most recent start.
- OK, here's my dumb question of the week, and maybe my dumbest of this or any other season:
First, I asked a Rockies official if the team would be in position to add payroll if it wanted to add a starting pitcher at the deadline -- a reasonable question, not a dumb one.
The official replied that the Rockies' payroll flexibility would hinge on whether the team's play was driving revenue through increased attendance, TV ratings, etc.
So, I asked, how have the fans responded thus far?
That was the dumb question.
"I am sure you noticed the snow?" the official said.