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When Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane went out on a financial limb this past winter by winning a bidding war for Yoenis Cespedes, he was gambling that the untested Cuban slugger would be an instant success with both his bat and at the box office. Thus far, Cespedes has lived up to the hype, blasting monster home runs and creating tabloid-type headlines for his showboating antics. Little did Beane realize, however, that a much smaller investment he made would reap similar rewards.
Veteran right-handed hurler Bartolo Colon has become Oakland’s version of the “Kung Fu Panda,” making an impact on the mound in the same fashion as Pablo Sandoval does at the plate across the bay in San Francisco. The portly Dominican pitcher has been a strike-throwing machine, leading the A’s in whiffs, wins and innings logged.
After undergoing a controversial, stem cell transplant to repair a damaged right shoulder in the spring of 2010, Colon signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees the following season. He didn’t disappoint in the Bronx, throwing 164 innings and compiling other respectable numbers. But Colon was shunned in the offseason by the Yankees, playing second fiddle to Freddy Garcia, who has been nothing short of terrible out of the gate.
In signing Colon to a one year, $2 million deal, Beane acquired experience and stability to help anchor a very young A’s mound staff. And even if Bartolo is traded by the All-Star break as rumored, his success has eased some of the backlash created when Billy moved popular pitcher Gio Gonzalez last December to the Washington Nationals for prospects.
Speaking of Gonzalez, the crafty southpaw has started the season like a player who appreciates a new five-year, $42 million contract. To date, Gio has more strikeouts than Stephen Strasburg and is undefeated with a 2.04 ERA, including 14 consecutive shutout innings at Nationals Park.
“This is a new league for me, and I’m just trying to avoid walks and pound the strike zone,” says the charismatic Cuban-American.” My catchers have really helped me keep the ball down and I love playing at home.”
Gonzalez, by his own admission, tries to keep things “loose,” and his goofy, confident nature appears to have rubbed off on his teammates. In case you haven’t noticed, Washington is in first place.
Here are some other observations as the new season’s first month comes to a close:
National League East
The Philadelphia Phillies are scuffling right now, especially with the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. But an unusually bright spot has been Freddy Galvis, a shortstop by trade who has been groomed to be the heir-apparent to Jimmy Rollins. But the 22-year-old Venezuelan was promoted to the varsity to spell Utley, and the kid is truly amazing.
Freddy isn’t exactly poetry in motion. He dives and darts to his left and right, often making throws from the seat of his pants. And Galvis hasn’t exactly intimidated pitchers at the plate, hitting at a modest .220 clip. But his at-bats have been as scrappy as his defense, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is a believer.
“I’m keeping him (Galvis) up here, even when Utley comes back,” says Charlie. “I like Freddy a lot.”
National League Central
A lot of the game’s top scouts and experts felt that without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, the St. Louis Cardinals would have a tough time defending their National League divisional crown. Those predictions, though, appear to be short-sighted.
Rookie manager Mike Matheny has earned respect, and the deals extended to Yadier Molina and Rafael Furcal have demonstrated ownership’s commitment to maintain a winning tradition. The outside “name” player who really replaced Pujols in the lineup, however, was Carlos Beltran, and there were questions about the durability of the ex-New York Met and San Francisco Giant. The Puerto Rican outfielder has answered back by performing among the league leaders in batting average, home runs and several other offensive areas. But his own leadership among his fellow Cardinals has earned Delgado the highest of marks.
“Carlos has been there cheerleading, talking with the guys and helping them figure out an approach,” notes Matheny. “He wants to win and see everyone do well.”
Compared to Albert’s less-than-impressive start, I’d say that Delgado is earning his meager, $12 million salary.
National League West
The Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t be pulling away from the pack without the heroics of Matt Kemp, who has been a hitting terror. But it’s tough to win consistently without a reliable bullpen, and 26-year-old right-hander Javy Guerra has been quietly doing a stellar job.
So, who is this Mexican-American kid who has already notched seven saves in April? Guerra was actually pretty good last year when he was promoted as the team’s new closer in his rookie season. But the Dodgers were so bad nobody noticed. Drafted out of high school in 2004, Guerra started to mature as a prospect with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 2009. He was born and raised in Denton, Texas, but is very aware of his Hispanic roots.
Searching for a theme song to punctuate his entrance into the game, Javy choose a Mexican mariachi tune called “La Negra,” although he prefers hip hop and rap music. Guerra also makes frequent public appearances in East Los Angeles and other Latino “barrios,” and particularly enjoys visiting schools to act as a role model for kids.
“I really like getting out in the community to promote baseball and the Dodgers,” he says.
Asi se hace, Javy!
American League East
The Yankees continue to look through the scrap heap for well-traveled pitchers, signing Nelson Figueroa to a minor league contract last week. The Puerto Rican who grew up in Brooklyn will be playing for his seventh big league team, plus stints in Mexico and Taiwan, where his popularity is second only to Chien Ming Wang.
Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman might also want to take a look at Kelvim Escobar, 36, the former Los Angeles Angel ace who hopes to soon convince a team that he is worthy of a comeback. The Venezuelan has gone through two shoulder surgeries and hasn’t pitched in a game since 2009 with the New York Mets.
American League Central
Wildness has been an issue thus far this season for Cleveland Indians prize pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. It got him into trouble even before the regular games began when he nailed Colorado Rockies superstar Troy Tulowitzki in the elbow, an ugly event that triggered a bench-clearing melee. The pair were not the best of friends when they played together in Denver, and Jimenez was accused of bad intentions.
This April, Ubaldo is undefeated with the Indians. He’s the staff workhorse, but his free passes are just as high as his strikeout ratio. Jimenez is “wild effective,” and always has been throughout his career.
“It’s a mechanical thing,” reasons Ubaldo. “I just have to keep working hard, especially between starts.”
Cleveland’s manager Manny Acta isn’t concerned.
“We’re not going to change anything with Jimenez,” the skipper says firmly. “He’s had a lot of success with those mechanics since day one.”
American League West
Now that the Los Angeles Angels have locked up Erick Aybar with a four-year, $35 million extension, the club has an increasingly growing payroll with many long-term commitments. So, team options for players in 2013 will be examined carefully. That being said, don’t look for the Halos to exercise their agreement with struggling right-handed pitcher Ervin Santana, who would make $13 million next season compared to a $1 million buyout.
For the present, though, the Angels will have to roll the dice with the 29-year-old Dominican, as well as troubled outfielder-designated hitter Bobby Abreu. This is a year that the Angels absolutely have to win, given their financial investments. Abreu, in particular, is a veteran who can still play, and the slugging Venezuelan is a great insurance policy in the event that another player goes down during the course of the season.
Memo to Angels manager Mike Scioscia: Take a tiny bit of love away from Albert and give it to Bobby. The man has had a great career and it’s all about respect.