Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 12 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: The Red Sox and Rays have started slowly. I'm not worried about Boston, but what about Tampa Bay? Can they bounce back, or should they just forget about this season, stock up on another high draft pick and come back strong in 2012?
- Mike, St. Petersburg
A: Even before the Rays started 1-8, chances of them contending in the American League East were slim. There was too much talent drain in the offseason. Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and almost the entire bullpen either left through free agency or were traded for prospects.
You never give up on a season, but as this one unfolds and the Rays probably play right around .500 ball, you'll see more emphasis on shaping the roster for 2012 and beyond.
You could see another veteran or two such as James Shields traded before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And Manny Ramirez's quick exit under the cloud of another suspension for use of PEDs will speed up the arrival of Desmond Jennings, the Rays' top position-player prospect. Comparisons between Jennings and Crawford already have been made.
Because of severe financial limitations, the Rays always will rely on drafting and developing talent. And this year, they are learning just how hard it is to do that consistently.
The Rays haven't been as successful in recent drafts as when they consistently picked at or near the top of the first round. But they still have one of the game's top-five farm systems. Jeremy Hellickson could emerge as a strong 2011 AL Rookie of the Year candidate, and Jake McGee should become a key bullpen member.
Still, the Rays face a huge challenge in trying to contend with about one-third or one-fourth the payroll of the Yankees and Red Sox. The feeling here is the Rays' division titles in 2008 and 2010, and World Series appearance in 2008, was a truly remarkable three-year stretch of accomplishments that isn't likely to be duplicated.
Q. What is the difference between a sinker and a splitter?
- Rickey Groover, Roswell, Ga.
A. While both pitches break downward, they are quite different. A sinker is another name for a two-seam fastball. It is gripped with the index and middle fingers on the seams at their narrow point, and the thumb on the bottom of the ball.
The key is keeping the fingers on top of the ball until it is thrown. The friction from the fingers on the seams is what slows the ball down a few miles per hour from a normal fastball, and helps it sink.
In addition, some pitchers will create some sideward movement by applying pressure with one of those fingers, but without breaking their wrist.
In contrast, a regular or four-seam fastball is gripped with the index and middle fingers placed across the seams at their widest point.
Pitchers with the better sinkers today include Derek Lowe, Jake Westbrook, Justin Masterson, Shawn Marcum and Fausto Carmona. Not coincidentally, they all rank among the leaders in getting groundball outs as compared to flyball outs.
The splitter loses enough velocity that it can drop dramatically right near home plate. So it's more similar to a changeup than a fastball.
You don't see the splitter thrown as much as you did in the 1980s, when it was popularized by pitching coach Roger Craig. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter arguably had the best splitter. Today, Dan Haren, Jose Valverde and Carlos Zambrano throw the pitch effectively.
Q: If two more wild-card teams are added, and it's more than a one-game playoff, the postseason could run into November. If the schedule isn't reduced, will we see a shortened spring training and an earlier start to the regular season?
- Anthony, Chula Vista, Calif.
A. You're preaching to the choir, Anthony. I don't think the additional playoff round is necessary. But it would be better to reward all three division winners, who would get a first-round bye and wait for the two wild-card teams to play a mini-series, likely a best-of-three.
I'm not necessarily in favor of reducing the regular season, either. So the answer is shortening spring training, which is a week or so too long. Remember that in 1995, spring training started late due to the strike and was only three weeks long.
The hitters and relievers were fine, but the starting pitchers could have used another spring start or two to build up arm strength. The point is, they don't really need 6 1/2-7 weeks of spring training when they begin their throwing programs right after the first of the year.
The regular season did start on March 31 this year, and don't be surprised if it begins a day or two earlier if the additional round of playoffs is added.