Two starts into a seven-year, $175 million contract, Felix Hernandez has seen his fastball drop off the table much the same as one of his splendid changeups. On Saturday, his fastest pitch was registered at 92.1 mph. He threw as many pitches at 88-89 mph as he did 90-92 mph.
Hernandez's velocity has been dropping annually. According to PitchFX data, he averaged 94.4 mph with his fastball in 2010, 93.4 mph in 2011 and 92.4 in 2012. After two starts in 2013, he's at 90.8.
That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be at 90.8 all season long. Last year, Hernandez's velocity improved as the year went on, though he never once bottomed out as far as he did yesterday. In 2011, he experienced a dip in his second start and picked it right back up afterwards.
Still, there is certainly cause for concern, especially in light of the elbow issues that temporarily held up Hernandez's massive contract in February. The Mariners would have been crazy to go ahead with the deal if they saw substantial damage in his elbow, but then, maybe the Mariners are a little crazy.
I had Hernandez ranked eighth among SPs at the beginning of the season. In light of his velocity troubles, I'd drop him out of the top 10 right now, though not far out of the top 10. As long as he's not hurting, I don't see why Hernandez can't be very effective while working at 89-92 mph -- his arsenal of secondary pitches is about as good as they come. That said, any further dip could turn into a big problem and Hernandez needs to be watched closely.
- And then there's Jered Weaver, who was throwing mostly 84-86 mph before hurting his left elbow in Texas on Sunday night. In the opener, he was little better, hitting 87 mph on occasion. Weaver averaged a steady 89 mph each year from 2007-11, but he slipped to 87.8 mph last year. His strikeout rate fell, too, yet he had his second-best season, going 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA.
The concern here is that 84-86 mph is a completely different animal from 86-88 mph. Few right-handers can succeed as mid-80s guys. Even last year, the only right-handers to qualify for the ERA title with slower fastballs than Weaver were knuckleballer R.A. Dickey at 83.4 and Bronson Arroyo at 87.2.
My guess is that Weaver gets back up to 86-88 mph anyway, and because of his terrific command and movement, that should be enough to keep him very effective for the Angels. I'm not pushing the panic button unless he finishes the month still averaging 85 mph.
- Justin Verlander's velocity has also been down some in his last two starts, and he just hasn't really been sharp in his last five starts dating back to the middle of the spring. Not that I want to put much weight into spring numbers, but when he gave up five homers in back-to-back outings in March, it matched the total he had allowed in his previous 15 spring starts dating back to 2011. Verlander topped out at 96 mph while giving up three runs in 7 1/3 innings in a loss to the Yankees on Sunday, but he was mostly at 91-93 mph. And that's abnormal for him. In his World Series start against the Giants last year, Verlander threw a total of three pitches at 91-93 mph and worked at 94-98 mph.
I don't find myself particularly concerned about Verlander, though. His first start came in temperatures barely above freezing. Sunday's was better, but still hardly ideal. I think the velocity will be there when he needs it. But I wouldn't be surprised if his April numbers aren't up to par.
- Closers are the only established players that can lose their jobs because of a bad first week. The Royals trusted Kelvin Herrera over Greg Holland after the left-hander gave up two singles in a Phillies' rally Sunday, but I don't think they'll make the closer switch right away. I'm actually pretty fond of both guys; Holland is plenty good enough to be a major league closer, but Herrera is even better and he should be one of baseball's best relievers this year if he stays healthy. If I were the Royals, I'd leave well enough alone; sometimes it's better to have your second-best reliever in the closer's role anyway. That said, Herrera should be owned in all formats now.
- Safe to say Fernando Rodney won't be losing his job, but he's already given up more than half as many earned runs this year (three) than he did last year (five). After watching Rodney in the World Baseball Classic and the rest of the spring, I figured he'd just keep cruising for the Rays. Obviously, that hasn't materialized, but I still don't see any reason for concern. He's my No. 1 AL closer.
- I'm buying Michael Morse's hot start a little more than Chris Davis's. Safeco's new walls are poised to make a difference in Seattle, and I think Morse is less likely to have those weeks in which he goes 2-for-25 with 13 strikeouts. Davis should win the homer battle, but Morse will carry the day when it comes to batting average. That doesn't mean I think Morse is a fantasy superstar; he'll be a zero in steals and below average in runs scored even as he takes aim at 30 homers. He might not even be a great source of RBI if the Mariners can't get their top of the order figured out.
- I'm wondering if Dustin Ackley might be the first major league regular demoted to the minors this year. It baffled me that the Mariners never brought in any competition for him at second base this winter while loading up with first base and outfield options. They do have alternatives in Triple-A in Stefen Romero and Nick Franklin, though both of those guys have missed the start of the year (Franklin just has the flu and should be back promptly, Romero has a strained oblique). They also have the option of moving Kyle Seager to second and calling up Alex Liddi to play third. Ackley has reworked his approach at the plate, but it's left him looking awkward and unproductive. I don't see him turning the corner right away.
- After sitting out the first two games against right-handers, Chris Young has made four straight starts for the A's and gone 5-for-13 with two homers, four RBI and four walks. Obviously, he's way overqualified to be a fourth outfielder, and while playing in Oakland will hurt his numbers, I still think he's going to have some value in mixed leagues this year. He's worth starting this week with Josh Reddick (wrist) banged up.
- Jed Lowrie is a must-start player in mixed leagues for as long as he's healthy. The A's currently have him batting fifth against righties and second versus lefties, and he's given them three homers already.
- Here's a thought: if Carlos Santana had spent the last three years playing in Yankee Stadium and Nick Swisher had spent that time have his numbers depressed in Cleveland, Indians manager Terry Francona wouldn't have opened the season with Santana hitting sixth and Swisher hitting fourth. With Santana off to a nice little 12-for-24 start, let's hope it doesn't last.
- The Yankees seem to have soured on Ichiro Suzuki awfully quickly, taking him out of the two hole immediately and sitting him against a right-hander on Saturday. I've been high on Ichiro this year, mostly since I firmly believe he can hit 15 liners a few inches over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium should he simply put his mind to it. One bad week isn't going to change my mind -- anyway, the ball doesn't really start carrying in the Bronx until the weather warms up -- but if Ichiro keeps batting low in the order and does some sitting against lefties, it's going to take more than a few homers to make him a quality fantasy outfielder.
- After Carlos Marmol imploded again Saturday, Cubs manager Dale Sveum indicated he'd favor James Russell and Shawn Camp for save changes. However, sometime between then and Sunday morning, he obviously had a talk with the front office and the announcement came down that Kyuji Fujikawa was now the Cubs' closer, despite his poor performance in the eighth inning Saturday. That's the right call; Fujikawa looks like the Cubs' best reliever to me. Marmol can be dropped in mixed leagues. NL-only leaguers should reserve him if possible and probably cut him if not.
- John Axford has been Marmol without the spotlight. After pitching a scoreless 10th inning in a tie game Sunday, he was left in for the 11th and gave up a double and a homer to take a loss. Why exactly he was still in there in the 11th after giving up two long flyballs for outs in the 10th is a mystery. Axford's velocity was better Sunday -- he was throwing 95 mph consistently -- but there wasn't much in the way of command, and since he can't get ahead with his fastball, his curveball isn't as much of a threat right now. I think he'll probably get it turned around, and I also don't like Milwaukee's alternatives (they're one team that should strongly consider signing Brian Wilson).
If the Brewers do make a change, it will be to Jim Henderson. That makes him worth picking up if you need saves. However, I recommend keeping an eye on Alfredo Figaro. Figaro, back from Japan, is throwing 93-96 mph, which is a nice step forward from his days with the Tigers in 2009-10. He's a sleeper.
- Even though Ryan Ludwick (shoulder) is slated to miss half of the season, the Reds want to keep Shin-Soo Choo in center for now. Probably because they're just trying to make the NL Central as interesting as possible. My guess is that we'll see Billy Hamilton right around June 1. He still has some work to do in center after making the switch from shortstop, and it's hardly a lock that he's ready to hit in the majors right now. That said, he could come up in June and still potentially lead the National League in steals. It's worth stashing him away in mixed leagues. In the meantime, Chris Heisey should be a fine NL-only outfielder, with the potential for a little value in mixed leagues since the Reds have decided to hit him second.
- Dexter Fowler has four homers in five games or 80 percent as many as he hit in 125 games two years ago. Fowler hit 15 homers in total in his first three years before upping his total to 13 last year. It looks like he'll be setting another new career high this year, but I'm not sure I'd count on him for more than 20. Frankly, I think he's an early sell-high candidate.
Now, Fowler has been on fire since the start of the spring, so maybe this is his career year. Also, he should get a lot more help in the run-scoring department if Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki can stay relatively healthy this year. Excluding his homers, he scored just 59 times in 143 games last year, a ridiculously low total for a guy with a .389 OBP batting leadoff and playing in Coors Field half of the time.
But what we still have here is a player who strikes out a ton, who isn't a very good basestealer for all of his speed and who isn't going to drive in runs while hitting at the top of the order. He's never played in 150 games, either. Apart from runs scored, I don't see him being a major asset in any category. I'm not saying he's bad, but if someone else wants to view him as a top-20 outfielder, then feel free to move him. I had him 40th in the preseason, and I wouldn't put him much higher now.
- The Pirates were hoping Travis Snider would prove to be the answer in right field, but after he failed to show any power this spring, they opted to give Gaby Sanchez a try at first base, with Garrett Jones moving to right. So far, nothing they've done has paid any sort of dividends. Sanchez is 1-for-16 and may revert back to playing strictly against lefties. Snider is 0-for-6. Jose Tabata got a start on Sunday and singled, making him 1-for-10. The Pirates surprised many by batting Jones second initially; he's 2-for-14 with no RBI, no walks and five strikeouts. Pedro Alvarez is in another early drought. The Pirates didn't even have a home run until Andrew McCutchen went deep Sunday; they lost 6-2 anyway.
This is all one big reason why I was down on McCutchen for this year; he has the weakest supporting cast of the top fantasy outfielders. Of my top 12 outfielders, I had him with the 11th most runs scored and ninth most RBI. Of course, the other big reason is that I have his average tumbling from last year's .327 back down to .280 or so. We're a long way from knowing whether I'll be right about that.
Of course, McCutchen could disappoint offensively and still be a top-five fantasy outfielder if he just keeps running like he did his first three games. He stole four bases in the opening series against the Cubs after going 6-for-14 swiping bases in the second half of last year and 20-for-32 overall. I had him projected for 25 steals. 41 steals would have made him my No. 7 outfielder, rather than my No. 12. 50 steals would have moved him past Bryce Harper for the fifth spot. Still, I wouldn't put him in that territory. McCutchen would hardly be the first star to go on a steal binge early and then start conserving his energy come May.
As for the rest of the Pirates, well, I imagine Alvarez will get his. Alvarez may not get started until May, but he'll still finish with 30-35 homers. I'm not a Jones fan, but he's defied my expectations before. In right field, I'd give Tabata a look. At the very least, manager Clint Hurdle needs to pick someone and stick with him for a couple of weeks. No one is likely to get hot playing two or three times per week.
- It doesn't sound like the Braves are too eager to try Evan Gattis at first with Freddie Freeman (oblique) out for two weeks. Barring a change of heart, they'll go with Chris Johnson at first and maybe let Juan Francisco play full-time at third. Ramiro Pena is technically a switch-hitter and could platoon at third, but he's been abysmal as a right-handed hitter in the majors. The injury makes Johnson a better play in NL-only leagues, but mixed leaguers can do better in replacing Freeman.