Transactions:
TSN Info
TSN Extras
By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
When is it too early to panic about struggling stars?
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When a major-leaguer goes through a subpar 10-day stretch in the middle of the season, it can go virtually unnoticed to all except the diehard fan.

When that slump occurs in the first 10 days of the season, though, virtually all baseball observers notice it. When a star player is badly underperforming at the start of the year, it's not unusual for panic to set in for fans (and fantasy owners, too).

Some bigger-name players are off to horrible starts this season. Let's examine a few of them in the National League and decide whether it's too early to panic:

TIM LINCECUM, SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

The two-time National League Cy Young Award winner's first three starts have been a real Freak show, and not at all in a good way. In his first 13 2/3 innings pitched, Lincecum has allowed 22 hits and 16 earned runs. His ERA is an unsightly 10.54. By comparison, it was 2.74 in 33 starts last season.

When Lincecum entered the league in 2007, he was a flamethrower. His velocity gradually decreased through the years, but he remained an elite pitcher, first by developing a quality change-up, then an effective slider.

During spring training last month, however, Lincecum said he was going to ditch the slider - at least for the early part of this season - to save his arm from extra stress. So Lincecum has been essentially a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and change-up), with a fastball that has averaged just 90 mph and topped out at 92. If a pitcher is already trying to save his arm in mid-April, might he be hiding an injury?

Even if Lincecum's not hurt, fixing his current problems is no easy task. He has a unique delivery that his father taught him. When his mechanics are off- kilter, it's difficult for a pitching coach even as respected as Dave Righetti to straighten him out.

Before Lincecum even got to the majors, some analysts considered him a poor bet for lengthy career because of his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, his power- pitching style and the body control, flexibility and precision needed to maintain his unique mechanics. He's only 27 and he's looked awful this month. Are those analysts about to be proven correct?

It's possible they are, and it's understandable if there's panic about Lincecum. One thing to remember, though: Because of his unorthodox delivery, he has occasionally struggled with mechanics and eventually conquered the problems.

In August 2010, Lincecum had his worst slump, going 0-5 with a 7.81 ERA in five starts. How did that season turn out? He righted the ship and led the Giants to a World Series title.

Someone with Lincecum's track record and ability to rebound from previous bumps in the road deserves the benefit of the doubt. If the results don't significantly improve soon, though, it's time to panic.

JOSH JOHNSON, MIAMI MARLINS

There were legitimate questions surrounding Johnson coming into this season, since a shoulder injury cut his 2011 campaign short in May. Few would have anticipated this rocky a start, however. He's 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA and 21 hits allowed in just 9 2/3 innings. He's also struck out only five hitters.

Johnson's velocity is down a bit; he's averaging around 92 or 93 mph, which is about 2 mph shy of his typical numbers. The bigger problem has been pitch location. He's been falling behind hitters, which has forced him to rely on his fastball more frequently.

In last Wednesday's loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Johnson threw 83 pitches and induced just one swinging strike in his 3 2/3 innings. That's an awful performance for a staff ace on a contending team.

Still, you have to believe Johnson will soon turn things around - provided he is truly healthy. If Johnson can regain better command, the results should follow.

Opposing hitters are batting an alarming .488 against him on balls in play, which is at least 200 points above the norm. If Johnson starts getting ahead in the count, he should be able to start retiring hitters with breaking stuff.

Injuries and durability will always be a concern, but he has a 3.05 lifetime ERA and has never endured a lengthy slump. As long as he stays healthy, there should be no reason to panic.

ARAMIS RAMIREZ, MILWAUKEE BREWERS

After the Brewers decided this past offseason they couldn't afford to re-sign free-agent slugger Prince Fielder, they inked ex-Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez to take his spot in the middle of the batting order.

Few sluggers have been more consistent than Ramirez. Nearly every full season he's played, Ramirez has delivered something close to 30 home runs and 100 RBIs with a decent batting average.

However, in Ramirez's first nine games with the Brew Crew, he has done little to make the fans forget Fielder. In his first 35 at-bats, he has just four hits (two doubles and two singles, for a .114 batting average), three walks, no home runs and five RBIs. Ramirez needs to pick things up dramatically if he is to provide lineup protection for Ryan Braun.

For three reasons, it's too early for Brewers fans to panic. First, Ramirez is a notoriously slow starter. His April struggles are hardly unusual, and he's always found a way to bounce back. Second, he has struck out just eight times in his first 38 plate appearances. That's not a wonderful percentage, but it's not too bad for someone in such a slump. It means his low batting average can be partially attributed to bad luck.

Third, as poorly as Ramirez has hit, he still has a respectable five RBIs in nine games. He may have begun the declining phase of his career, but Ramirez should still be good for 90 RBIs if he stays healthy.

HEATH BELL, MIAMI MARLINS

The Marlins made a big free-agent splash during the offseason, adding shortstop Jose Reyes and starting pitcher Mark Buerhle in addition to Bell, who converted 132 saves in the last three seasons with the San Diego Padres.

Bell has yet to put out a fire for the Marlins. In fact, he's been something of an arsonist. With an 0-2 record, Bell has blown both of his save chances and allowed eight hits, three walks and six runs (four earned, for a 12.00 ERA) in four appearances totaling three innings.

OK, we'll answer this one quickly: It's still too early to panic. Three innings don't provide a large enough sample, and his meltdown Saturday against the Houston Astros was made much worse by shoddy Miami fielding.

Bell bears monitoring, however. His velocity was down a bit last season and his strikeout rate decreased as a result. In 2010, he fanned 86 batters in 70 innings. Last year, he punched out just 51 in 62 2/3 frames.

Miami will keep trotting Bell out there, since he's owed $27 million over the next three seasons. Chances are he'll revert nearer to form with a consistent workload when the Marlins start to generate more frequent save chances. We probably won't see the 2010 Bell again, but he's still in a great pitchers' park and ought to be able to post something like 35 saves in 42 or 43 chances - not truly elite, but decent enough



Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.