Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano lead Latinos with hot, cold starts

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Robinson Cano
One is hot, the other is not, and it’s impacting the race in the AL West.

If you find a few teams that seem to be surprise in this young season, there’s usually a Latino player behind that success. On the flip side, the same could be said for clubs that have not performed as well as expected. A high-priced Hispanic star should share the blame.

There’s no better story than the fast start of the Houston Astros, although reality is beginning to emerge. There’s a galaxy of talent suiting up for the Astros these days that include the recently banged-up George Springer, Jake Marisnick and catcher Jason Castro. But leading the way as usual in Houston is Jose Altuve, the face of the franchise who has carried this group on his back. The 2014 American League batting king has a current average of .349 and heads the junior circuit in hits and stolen bases. And anyone who has seen the spunky second baseman take the field can attest to his defensive skills and dominant leadership.

By contrast, Houston’s division rival in Seattle has been mediocre at best, despite being picked by Las Vegas odds-makers to win a flag and go deep in the postseason. Why? Not because of Felix Hernandez or Nelson Cruz, but due to another Mariner named Robinson Cano. The flashy Dominican who banks $24 million a year has yet to shift into high gear, collecting only eight RBI and one home run to date. As a predictable result, the Mariners are scuffling several games under the .500 mark.

In the National League East, the New York Mets have sprinted into first place behind some excellent pitching and the play of Juan Lagares, their highly regarded center fielder. The Mets were smart to lock in Lagares with a five-year, $23 million package. Yet, I wonder how long New York can prosper when their sole strength up the middle is a guy chasing down balls hit around 300 feet and beyond. The catching lacks depth and the shortstop spot continues to be an issue. Young Wilmer Flores has tried to learn on the fly and the kid is both smart and diligent. Unfortunately, there’s no way the 23-year-old Venezuelan can handle chores on a daily basis, especially under the microscope of the world’s most critical media.

Then there’s the tale of two teams in Chicago. The Cubbie faithful can’t complain, thanks to the potent bats of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. The shortstop in Chicago is Starlin Castro, who like Flores is youthful, albeit much more experienced. Castro has a healthy bat, too, but remains a troubling enigma on the field. The three-time All-Star thought it was amusing to make a fake throw behind Bryant the other night while the rookie third baseman was making the actual play. The mimic was cool, but the “double-throw” “deked” the first baseman Rizzo, who appeared surprised. I thought it was a bit immature on Castro’s part, which is probably why he has committed four errors in 28 games and doesn’t seem to give a damn.

On the south side of the Windy City, White Sox skipper Robin Ventura has to be concerned that he might join former Milwaukee Brewer boss Ron Reonicke in the unemployment line. Despite vast improvements and money spent in the off-season, Chicago has sputtered in the early going and it’s not because Jose Abreu and newcomer Melky Cabrera haven’t pulled their weight. So, if Ventura gets canned, most of the blame will fall on Alexi Ramirez, 33, the veteran shortstop who has batted around the Mendoza Line and has been as bad as Castro with the glove.

On a more positive note though, my props to Altuve and Cruz, which brings me to mention a few other Hispanic players who have helped their respective clubs compete over the first month of the season.

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees

Call him “A-Roid” if you want, but A-Rod has tried to shy away from publicity since his return to the Bronx and has been unusually humble. He’s hit seven bombs so far for a career total of 661 (surpassing Willie Mays) and has the blessing of home run king Henry Aaron and commissioner Rob Manfred to move forward. Yankee manager Joe Girardi also deserves some credit for making a couple of solid decisions: Allowing Alex to DH only and permitting Yankees players to grow a mustache if they wish. For Rodriguez, facial hair could be a new milestone.

Kendrys Morales, Kansas City Royals

Billy Butler who? Fans at Kauffman Stadium have found a new slugging hero in Morales, 32, who has been in the offensive mix with a slash line of .310/.370/.483 as the Royals five-hole hitter. Butler had spent eight years in Kansas City but left as a free-agent to ink a three-year, $30 million pact with the Oakland A’s. That opened the door for the veteran Morales and the Cuban’s two-year, $15 million deal looks like a wise investment.

Angel Pagan, San Francisco Giants

He inspires teammates, is loved by Giants fans and is hated by almost everybody else. But Angel Pagan has always played with emotion and a Latino flair that is his trademark. With Hunter Pence still on the shelf for a few more weeks, the 33-year-old Puerto Rican has been asked to hit third in the lineup instead of his familiar lead-off spot. The result? Pagan has stepped it up to sport a .322 batting average, 47 points higher than his career percentage. And after a slow start, the World Champion Giants are starting to put things together.

Alex Guerrero, Los Angeles Dodgers

I know Adrian Gonzalez is off to a monster season and deserving of the spotlight. That said, it’s hard to ignore the accomplishments of Guerrero, the 28-year-old Cuban who is just as cocky as Yasiel Puig but knows more about baseball. As a part-time player with no particular role as a Dodger, Guerrero has blasted six big flies in only 40 at-bats. And while I’ve scoffed in the past about this dude and his ridiculous contract, I must admit that he’s legit.

I was going to include Hanley Ramirez in the final spot on this list until he bruised a shoulder by actually hustling for a ball in left field against the Tampa Bay Rays. After all, Hanley has been the Red Sox cleanup hitter and is near the top of the American League in five offensive categories. But I’m ticked off at this 31-year-old spoiled brat and can’t think of anything good to say about him.

Ramirez, who the media used to call “El Nino” in his younger days, acted like one recently during a game against the Yankees. With Boston down seven runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and about to get swept in the series, Hanley became irate after being hit by a pitch from New York’s Adam Warren. Ramirez barked and gestured toward Warren who appeared to be dumbfounded, and Hanley seemed to petition for revenge upon returning to the dugout. That took place two innings later when Red Sox hurler Edwin Mujica had the Yankees Jacoby Ellsbury playing dodge ball, finally nailing him with a fast ball on a 3-0 count.

I’ve been around this game for a long time, and I understand the mentality of a pitcher taking care of business for his comrade. And David Ortiz has make it clear that there has been some “trash-talking” directed toward Ellsbury in the past. I just don’t think that an errant pitch with no intent from the opposing pitcher should be cause for a possible bench-clearing brawl. And that’s what nearly happened at the whim of Hanley Ramirez.

That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. Grow up, Hanley.

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