WTNYSeptember 21, 2005
Background September Starts
By Bryan Smith

There is no question that baseball has become a game of September. While the drama of October, the craziness of the Winter Meetings, and the feeling of April all reaffirm our love, it is built in this month. Not only are we being treated to some of the best races in a long time, but every year the month brings some of the game's best young players to the forefront.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. Despite the importance of games like Cleveland-Chicago, or Philly-Atlanta, I found myself more intrigued by different games when perusing the pitching lines. Five bona fide rookie starters? It doesn't get any better than that.

So between flipping between watching my Cubbies lose, yet again, and the White Sox almost blow another, I was treated to not-so-good performances from the day's five rookie starters. Only one of the five (the best prospect), Matt Cain, made it past the fifth inning. Only Cain managed to give up less than four runs. None managed to win. While five rookie wins probably would have created a story, today will be a review of the five young starters of Tuesday, and whether this lack of success will continue.

The day started with Tuesday's least important game: the first game of a Tigers-Royals doubleheader between Mike Maroth and J.P. Howell. The latter was fighting to keep the Royals at 99, as the team continues to fight its inevitable tumble into the 100 win category. And despite Howell's best efforts, the Royals abstained yet again -- as they would do in the nightcap -- staying on 99 losses.

At the start of the game, Howell reminded me of my previous thoughts on his pitching:

...I witnessed Howell pitch one of the more impressive 11 baserunner, five earned run performances I had ever seen. On the mound Howell is a master, as he did not throw one pitch outside of 77-88 mph at U.S. Cellular. In fact, Howell's problems began when his fastball went from 84-85 to 86-88, likely straightening out when the velocity improved.

Howell began by striking out Curtis Granderson, and then provoking both Placido Polanco and Chris Shelton into line outs. The deception that he needs to be successful was present, especially with Granderson, whom he struck out with a good mixture of offspeed and breaking pitches. However, the second key to his game -- control -- was not there today.

In the second inning, J.P. did the impossible, walking Pudge Rodriguez on seven pitches. He would walk two more, in addition to two wild pitches, as well as one hit batsman. Control has been an issue all season with Howell -- unconventional for a junkballing southpaw -- who has now walked 82 hitters in 163 innings spread across four levels. This is not acceptable, and it likely means that while Howell thrives on pitching with so much movement, even he does not know in which direction it's going.

Like most pitchers in the system, the Royals madly rushed Howell to the Major League level. He has proven to be completely not ready for the Bigs, and instead is probably currently a AA-AAA tweener. Even giving Howell the same treatment as Justin Huber, an even more polished player that the Royals babied in comparison to the Longhorn, would have helped his development.

I do believe that Howell will find success at the back end of a rotation, profiling to have a similar career pattern to Mark Redman. His pitches are heavy with movement, and his assortment makes deception fairly easy. However, this is only so effective without any semblance of control, allowing hitters to get ahead in counts and hammer Howell's mediocre fastball.

Quite the opposite is true of Matt Cain, another rookie starter that found a little more success on Tuesday. While his problem is traditionally control as well, he throws with considerably more velocity than Howell. In fact, while Cain was only 90-94 mph on the MLB.TV gun, he appeared to be throwing much harder than that. His breaking pitches provided stark contrast and remain the proof behind Cain's 2005 PCL strikeout victory.

Like I expected, Cain began the game off with significant control problems. Brad Wilkerson went ahead 3-0 before singling, and then Jose Vidro walked on five pitches. Cain's fastball was all over the place, but as the game went on, he calmed and only walked one more batter. What excited me most of Cain was a smooth delivery and mature moxie that translates to lots of success coming in his future.

The broadcast also told an interesting story that the Giants first noticed Cain "on accident," while scouting one of his teammates as he was a junior. The team followed him, made him a first round draft pick, and talked him out of a commitment to Memphis. Now it is Cain doing the convincing, as he fights for a role in the 2006 rotation. I think what you'll find is that the two make a perfect fit.

In Cain, the Giants finally bring a well-developed player to San Francisco. In the past, Brian Sabean has been quick to ditch San Francisco pitching prospects for quick band-aids at the Major League level. Ask fans in Minnesota and Chicago, and they will tell you, as both Francisco Liriano and Jerome Williams pitched yesterday as well. Cain is one of the few to slip through the cracks and actually make the Majors, and his presence will be good for public relations in convincing fans that the organization's minor league system isn't worth completely ignoring. For Cain, San Fran will be an opportunity to pitch in a spacious stadium, as he needs. Few top prospects had flyball tendencies quite as profound as Cain, as he is proving in his cup of coffee.

Expect this match made in heaven to begin what should be a long career next April, and for Cain to be the best starter on a staff Barry Bonds hopes will give him one last hurrah.

Sabean didn't look so stupid yesterday, as Francisco Liriano struggled against the Oakland A's in his quest to make the A.J. Pierzynski trade the worst of all-time. Expect Liriano to eventually push it into the top five, as nights like this will be few and far between in the future.

However, not this year, as I believe the Twins have really screwed up with their handling of Liriano. The team neglected to call up their organization's hottest arm in August, during which Liriano was striking out a dozen per game, and the Twins were still in the Wild Card race. Liriano's power arm could have been a huge asset out of the bullpen, even in the Ron Villone-swingman role, rather than continuing a dominating International League streak. Instead the club continued to abuse Francisco's surgically-rebuilt left arm, deciding to keep him in the rotation, both for Rochester in August as well as Minnesota now in September.

The time is now for the Twins to shut down Liriano, and keep an open mind about giving the youngster a rotation spot next season. I'm worried that this organization -- once so against giving Johan Santana a starting spot -- will incorrectly view Tuesday a sign of things to come, and delay his entrance into the rotation. Instead, Terry Ryan must point the finger at himself, shut down Liriano, and turn everyone's focus to February.

Simply put, Liriano was just too hittable yesterday. It did not look like the Francisco I saw at the Futures Game, the point in time in which his tear really took off. Still, there was a smell of dominance in the air, as despite struggles in his 3.2 innings of work, Liriano managed to strike out six hitters. Few pitchers have no-hit stuff (3 good pitches, none under 85 mph) as consistently as Liriano, who even amidst a bad performance showed why he is top dog in a loaded Minnesota minor league system.

Similar in style, if not results, to Liriano and Cain is John Maine, a pitching prospect that has seemingly forever been caught in the "will eventually become 4th/5th starter" group. The 2003 minor league strikeouts leader is finally getting his chance, and before yesterday, had been progressing in the solid manner through which he has run his career. Nothing spectacular by any means, but an ERA south of 4.00 with some good peripherals. While the YES announcers said that Maine had control issues, I didn't find that particularly evident in his Tuesday or minor league performance.

However, I didn't find a whole lot of success either. In fact, Maine barely had time to walk people on Tuesday, what with the Yankees constantly knocking him around. The book on Maine was obvious, as the YES announcers pointed out, and the Yankees offensively philosophies quietly stated. Make this kid throw a breaking ball. His fastball has control, it has movement, it has it all, but after that, he offers very little.

Wait until a breaking pitch comes, and do damage with it. If Maine is going to be the back-end starter that everyone has been predicting for years, he must spend this offseason working on his breaking stuff. His curveball must become more crisp, and his slider should add a little more movement to it. Otherwise, I see Maine headed in the Brad Thompson middle relief role, a far cry from his days atop Oriole prospect charts.

Tom Gorzelanny has never been atop a prospect list. Always behind someone, he entered the year as "just another southpaw" in a Pirate system with Oliver Perez at the top and Zach Duke on the cusp. Gorzelanny had potential, but 2005 Major League aspirations? One wouldn't think so. Still, with injuries to most of the Pirate starting rotation, Gorzelanny got his first chance yesterday, walking along the path already paved by Duke and Paul Maholm.

Unfortunately, Gorzelanny did not start off his Major League career in a similar fashion to Zach Paul. Instead, in his first start, Gorzelany drew the Astros, the Wild Card leader in a must-win situation. He drew a similar pitcher with a much better pedigree in Andy Pettite, who continued his improbable season with yet another victory yesterday. Still, there is some hope for Gorzelanny, and you can bet that he will show that in starts two and three, if the Bucs believe he has earned them.

One, for instance, is that splitter. Will Carroll gave the pitch high praise in Monday's UTK, claiming it "the best splitter in baseball I've seen since Mike Scott." Gorzelanny did use that weapon effectively on Tuesday, garnering seven groundball outs during the game. However, his other stuff must become less hittable if he stands any chance at emerging amonst a sea of southpaws. This is, of course, the Pirates plan, but at some point, enough is enough.

Always lost amidst the annual great races that September provides are the opportunities for dozens of cups of coffees to be handed out. Expect more on this topic in the coming weeks, but for now, let's just appreciate the best month in sports.


I like the JP Howell to Mark Redman reference as it gives him some projectibility. I was wondering how long it takes a major league pitcher without the great stuff of Liriano (ie Howell, Maine, and Gorezelany) to develop into effective or at least servicable pitcher.

Well Clark, Redman is a pretty extreme example, but one I do think that Howell could follow. He took a very long time to develop, and probably had a few breaks along the way. He also had an organization that was capable of exuding a little more patience than the Royals.

In 1996, the year following becoming a first round pick out of a Big 12 school, Redman pitched in three leagues: the Florida State League, the Eastern League, and the PCL. He dominated the FSL with an ERA under 2.00. He even held his own at AA, with a 3.81 ERA in 16 starts. The club let him finish in AAA, where he was destroyed.

Redman then spent the 1997-1999 seasons pitching almost exclusively in the PCL. Not once was his ERA under 5.00, and the only real good indicator was a declining walk rate. What had once been at 4.55 dropped to 3.43, and in 2000, the Twins gave Redman a shot. Save one year of injury, Redman has been very dependable since the 2000 season, good for 30 starts and (at worst) a league average ERA.

Howell, another good southpaw from a Big 12 school, split this year between four levels. However, this was the Royals fault, and he should have been moved at a similar pace to Redman. If he plays in the PCL next year, expect some struggles, but do not expect the Royals to give him almost 75 AAA starts before he dives into the Majors, a la Redman.

And this, my friends, is why the Twins are successful, and the Royals are not.