When is it too early to worry?


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Updated: 4/16/2013 9:14 am Published: 4/16/2013 9:14 am


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - During a 162-game Major League Baseball season, slumps are going to happen. When they occur at the beginning of the season, though, they are more noticeable.

Considering the length of the baseball season, it's important to avoid making knee-jerk reactions based on a relatively small sample size.

However, a number of players with big expectations have underperformed during the first couple of weeks this season. Is it too early for their teams to hit the panic button?

Let's analyze a few of the slow starters:

AARON HICKS, MINNESOTA TWINS -- (.047 average, 3 RBI, 20 strikeouts in 43 at- bats)

An impressive showing in the spring advanced this top prospect's major-league clock a little bit, as Hicks came north with the Twins and was installed as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. From there, it hasn't gone so well.

Unless he gets on a hot streak soon, there's a good chance Hicks will be demoted for a couple months. The 23-year-old outfielder is a five-tool player, so this inauspicious start in the majors will probably prove to be nothing more than a minor hiccup.

VICTOR MARTINEZ, DETROIT TIGERS -- (.146 average, 4 RBI)

Detroit got to the World Series last season, but a big reason many forecasted the Tigers to be even better this year was the return of Martinez. He missed 2012 with a knee injury, but his presence this season as the Tigers' designated hitter and No. 5 hitter was expected to give Prince Fielder the lineup protection he had lacked.

Through two weeks, he has provided next to nothing. It's still early, and some rust was to be expected. As long as the Tigers keep trotting Martinez out there in the middle of their lineup, the production should eventually materialize.

EDWIN ENCARNACION, TORONTO BLUE JAYS -- (.184 average, 2 HR, 6 RBI)

After teasing with his power potential for several years, Encarnacion broke out with a 42-homer, 110-RBI campaign in 2012. He signed a three-year, $29 million contract during the offseason, but the production has been absent this season.

Should the Jays be worried? While it's certainly possible Encarnacion will never again duplicate his 2012 stat line, it would be surprising if he didn't deliver at least 25 homers and 85 RBI. But he's hitting in the middle of what should be a potent lineup, so the Jays have to be expecting more.

ICHIRO SUZUKI, NEW YORK YANKEES -- (.176 average, 1 HR, 3 RBI)

Anyone would be expected to decline at age 39, so Ichiro's slow start isn't stunning. However, the former Seattle Mariners great hit .322 in 240 plate appearance last year after being traded to the Yankees. After signing him to a two-year contract this offseason, New York certainly expected more than what Ichiro has delivered to date.

He's been a hitting machine throughout his career, so it's unlikely his skills have completely eroded. The most likely result will be something in line with his production in 423 Seattle plate appearances last year, when he hit .261.

PEDRO ALVAREZ, PITTSBURGH PIRATES -- (.073 average, .247 OPS, 1 RBI)

The slugging third baseman is probably the streakiest hitter in baseball. His miserable start probably means that he's likely to begin an amazing hot streak soon.

Alvarez was once considered the top hitting prospect in the minor leagues. He hasn't been the complete hitter the Pirates probably envisioned, but he did make up for a .244 batting average last year with 30 homers and 85 RBI. Expect more of the same this year, but there will be a few more droughts like this one before the season is over.

JASON HEYWARD, ATLANTA BRAVES -- (.103 average, 1 HR, 4 RBI)

B.J. UPTON, ATLANTA BRAVES -- (.163 average, 1 HR, 2 RBI)

It's gone relatively unnoticed because of Atlanta's hot start as a team, but Heyward and newcomer Upton have contributed little to the Braves' offense.

Heyward took a big step forward last season (.269, 27, 82), and it's sometimes easy to forget that he's still only 23. A performance similar to 2012 should still be expected.

While Justin Upton has been one of the league's hottest hitters, older brother B.J. has mostly struggled. He's always been streaky, though. In the end, the power numbers should be there, but remember Upton is only a .254 lifetime hitter. While switching leagues and adjusting to new pitching, Upton won't suddenly hit for a high average.

BRANDON BELT, SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS -- (.140 average, 2 RBI)

The whole always seems to be less than the sum of the parts with Belt, a one- time top prospect who routinely tears it up in spring training only to start slowly during the regular season. The soon-to-be 25-year-old first baseman has good on-base skills and a beautiful swing. He just hasn't broken out the way scouts and fans have expected.

Playing half his games in San Francisco is probably going to put somewhat of a low ceiling on Belt's power potential, but when (if?) he eventually puts it all together, he ought to be a perennial .285-ish hitter with 20 or so home runs. Perhaps that's still a year away.

GIANCARLO STANTON, MIAMI MARLINS -- (.167 average, 0 RBI)

With 93 home runs in his first three major-league seasons, the 23-year-old Stanton is one of baseball's top power hitters. The only star in the Marlins' starting lineup this year, Stanton has failed to drive in a run during the first two weeks of the season.

Now sidelined with a sore left shoulder, Stanton should eventually rediscover his power stroke. Remember, he started miserably in the power department last year, too, only to finish with 37 homers in just 123 games. If he's relatively healthy, he ought to still be able to deliver 30 or so bombs, but just keep in mind that he's not going to get too many fat pitches to hit with so little protection in the lineup.

COLE HAMELS, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES -- (0-2, 7.56 ERA)

ROY HALLADAY, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES -- (1-2, 7.63 ERA)

In his age-29 season, Hamels was expected to be a prime National League Cy Young Award candidate this season. That could still happen. In his case, the slow start was probably just a minor blip. He had a solid spring, and he's in the prime of his outstanding career. He was good in his last start Saturday, a no-decision at Miami.

There has to be less confidence in a Halladay return to form. The former Cy Young winner turns 36 next month. During an injury-marred 2012, he went 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA. He says he's healthy now, but his velocity is down and he just doesn't seem to be nearly the same pitcher he was. He won his start Sunday, but that performance deserves a bit of an asterisk as it came against a bad Miami lineup.

As good as Halladay has been, expect him to make some adjustments and bounce back a little bit and again manage to post double-digit wins. However, sub-3.00 ERAs are almost certainly a thing of the past.

JOHN AXFORD, MILWAUKEE BREWERS -- (0-2, 0 SAVES, 1 BLOWN SAVE, 18.69 ERA)

Axford blew nine save chances last season, although his strong 2012 finish gave the Brewers confidence that he would rebound. Instead, he has allowed nine hits and nine earned runs in his first 4 1/3 innings, costing him the closer job.

Jim Henderson has replaced Axford as the ninth-inning guy. Since, like Axford, he's also a late bloomer who kicked around for years in the minors, Henderson is no lock to hold onto the gig. Axford could get another shot, but he's unlikely to ever recapture any consistent success because his walk rate has almost always been much higher than ideal.

JOEL HANRAHAN, BOSTON RED SOX -- (0-1, 3 SAVES, 1 BLOWN SAVE, 11.57 ERA)

A two-time All-Star selection with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hanrahan failed spectacularly in his fourth save chance of the season last Wednesday. He surrendered two home runs and five earned runs in two-thirds of an inning against Baltimore to absorb the loss. On Saturday, he was pulled after walking the only two hitters he faced.

Last season in Pittsburgh, Hanrahan's walk rate and home run rate both spiked upward. So, some continued regression should have been expected this year. He's still most likely going to be successful in Boston this year, though. Hanrahan is currently bothered by a hamstring injury, and his blown save last Wednesday was his first poor outing. There's no need to worry just yet.

JOSH JOHNSON, TORONTO BLUE JAYS -- (0-1, 11.05 ERA)

R.A. DICKEY, TORONTO BLUE JAYS -- (1-2, 5.82 ERA)

MARK BUEHRLE, TORONTO BLUE JAYS -- (1-0, 7.31 ERA)

Arguably the three main reasons for the Blue Jays' high hopes of going from fourth to first place in the American League East, newcomers Johnson, Dickey and Buerhle were expected to make Toronto's starting rotation as strong as its formidable offense.

Just about the opposite has occurred to date, although Dickey and Buehrle were both solid in their most recent starts.

All three pitchers were in the NL last season. Moving to the AL is no picnic; it's the stronger, deeper league right now, and pitchers have to contend with tougher lineups that feature designated hitters.

Although these pitchers should all rebound soon, there is some legitimate level of concern about each of them. With Johnson, it's always a question of health. When he's not injured, he is capable of dominating. The problem is that he seems to be injured as often as not.

With Dickey, it's the fact he was a journeyman before breaking out in his mid-30s with the New York Mets. Last year's NL Cy Young winner has the advantage of being a rare knuckleballer, but he's moving from a great pitchers park in a weaker offensive league into a hitters park in the rugged AL East. A return to 2012 form is clearly no slam dunk.

With Buehrle, it's a question of possible diminishing skills. Now 34, Buehrle is the rare "crafty righty," and although his guile is a great quality, it won't necessarily enable him to turn the clock back five years or so.

Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.


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