What's Next: Individuals emerge at April's end
From Abreu's stellar rookie year to Seager's big week, players rise above the pile
The calendar will turn to May this week, so the obvious choice for What's Next in Major League Baseball is, well, the second month of the 2014 season.
And that's fitting, because as we say goodbye to April and embark upon the weekly task of trying to assess where we are in the big picture when it comes to the 162-game marathon that takes us to October, the standings look about as clear as a good ol' tin of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud.
So, for one day, at least, let's zero in on a few individual players to watch, because the standouts seem to be pulling ahead of the pack while the 30 clubs continue to jockey for position in a campaign that is still in its early stages.
On the South Side of Chicago, a major story is brewing, and it involves a rookie player who has simply destroyed Major League pitching in his first month in the big leagues. Granted, Jose Abreu of the White Sox is not your typical rookie. The slugging first baseman had years of production against excellent competition in his native land of Cuba, enough to get a six-year, $68 million deal from the White Sox despite having never set foot on a big league field.
Check him out now.
Abreu blasted his Major League-leading 10th home run on Sunday, capping off a week-long stretch in which he added four other long balls, including a walk-off grand slam in a two-homer game on Friday. On Sunday, he drove in four runs to give him the lead -- and a rookie record for April -- in that category at 31. That's a pretty good two months for most cleanup hitters.
"He's good," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "I think he likes to hit with guys on base. I think the last few home games haven't been ideal conditions. Even today is a little windy and cold, but he's just a good hitter. He's making adjustments and doing it between at-bats, between pitches.
"Everything has kind of been an adjustment for him. He just continues to impress."
The same could be said for a healthy Troy Tulowitzki.
The Rockies shortstop is playing every day, and the offense isn't stopping. Tulowitzki homered in three consecutive games last week and enters Monday's series opener against the D-backs in Phoenix with a .342 batting average, five homers, 17 RBIs, and an eye-popping on-base percentage, with more walks (17) than strikeouts (13).
"It's come with maturity," said Tulowitzki, 29. "I don't feel the game is too big for me. When I was young, I was out of control at times, trying to do so many things. I feel like I am very under control right now. I know myself as a hitter."
As does Kyle Seager. The Mariners third baseman was lost at the plate for the first three weeks of the season but has figured something out in rather quick order. Last Wednesday, he entered his team's home game against the Astros with a .179 average, no homers and two RBIs. Then, in a 5-3 victory, he hit two homers, including a walk-off, three-run blast, to drive in all of Seattle's runs. The team was off Thursday, but Seager went 2-for-4 with an RBI on Friday. On Saturday, he homered again in a loss to Texas. And on Sunday, he homered in the seventh inning against the Rangers, and, with his team trailing by two in the bottom of the eighth, he hit a three-run homer that proved the difference in a 6-5 victory.
That's five homers in four games for those keeping score at home, and Seager has raised his average to .228 with 13 RBIs.
"I've been able to do some good work in the cages with [hitting coach Howard Johnson] and [manager Lloyd McClendon] and everybody, so it's been positive," Seager said Saturday. "It's felt good for the last week or so. Sometimes you're feeling good and you don't get the results you want, but it's starting to feel better for sure."
Albert Pujols is feeling better, too, with nine home runs, so the Angels are naturally feeling better, and the Brewers are feeling good in part because of their new closer, Francisco Rodriguez, who took over the ninth inning from Jim Henderson in the first week of the season and heads into the new week with a Major League-leading 11 saves and a 0.00 ERA after 14 innings.
K-Rod's renaissance is one reason why the Brewers take the best record in baseball (18-7) into Monday, although the hot Braves aren't far behind at 17-7. This week, Milwaukee faces a stern test with three games on the road against the Cardinals, the defending National League Central champions. The Braves, meanwhile, head to Miami for three games against the improved Marlins starting Tuesday, and they return to Atlanta for a competitive weekend set against the Giants, who are starting to make a move in the NL West.
The Mets are a team worth keeping an eye on as well.
A home shutout over the Marlins on Sunday gave them momentum that they will take with them as they travel to Philadelphia and Colorado in an important week as the calendar flips.
"The only way to become confident is to get some wins under your belt," Mets captain and third baseman David Wright said. "It's impossible to beat your chest and walk with a little pep in your step when you're not winning. But when you get a few series wins under your belt, you beat some good teams, you start taking care of business at home, you kind of gain that confidence. And I think that shows on the field.
"Instead of hoping we're going to win, we expect to."