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May 28, 2009 at 1:12 PM

The Ladder- 5.28.09

Junichi Tazawa

The Line: After impressing during Spring Training with the Boston Red Sox, Tazawa is off to a strong start in his transition to baseball in the United States with the Portland Sea Dogs. Covering 49 1/3 innings on the season, his 47 strikeouts rank third in the Eastern League and batters have hit just .227 against the right-handed starter on the season. After getting his footing in April, Tazawa has turned it on in May, firing 28 innings covering 5 starts while racking up 28 strikeouts against 7 walks and holding batters to 21 hits. He’s only given up 5 earned runs during the stretch and hasn’t allowed a home run in his last 29 1/3 innings pitched. Tazawa had his strongest outing of the season on May 12 against Trenton, limiting the Thunder to 3 hits over 6 shutout innings while fanning 7 and only issuing 1 free pass. Getting tougher when the pressure rises, Tazawa has held batters to a .135 average with runners in scoring position and punched out 18 in those situations.

The View: Tazawa has come over from Japan as advertised and impressed with his quick transition to facing professional batters. His fastball sits 88-92 with the ability to top out around 93 when he reaches back. His heater tends to flatten out some at higher velocities, but it shows some late tail at the lower end of his range. Tazawa has controlled lineups with his advanced arsenal of off-speed pitches and relies on them to keep hitters off-balance. His hard-breaking backdoor slider sits in the upper 70’s and is his go-to out pitch. With its late break that nips the corner of the plate on his arm side, this pitch has been effective against left-handed batters, as they have the tendency to give up on it or swing over the top of it. Tazawa also utilizes a split-change that has the action of a forkball and is also tough on lefties, running down and in. His stuff has been much tougher on lefties to this point in the season. Tazawa can also lean on a low 70’s slow curve that he could feature more against right-handed batters to keep them off-balance, along with consistently establishing the inside portion on the plate with his fastball to keep them from leaning over the plate. His above-average command of his entire repertoire allows him to throw a strike with any one of his offerings and has kept Eastern League batters guessing so far this season.

Ryan Lavarnway

The Line: Splitting time between catcher and DH with Greenville, Lavarnway has posted a .275/.339/.490 line, good for an OPS of .829 on the season and for second on the Drive. He’s tagged 13 extra-base hits including 4 home runs in 102 at-bats after struggling some with Lowell late last season while coming back from a wrist injury suffered prior to signing with the organization. Lavarnway has heated up in May and is currently riding a 9-game hitting streak, going 13 for 34, including a 4-hit performance against Augusta on May 22 in which he clubbed a tape-measure shot and also drilled a double. He’s knocked all 4 of his home runs against right-handed pitching and held in against them well on the season, posting a .288 batting average.

The View: Lavarnway has shaken off the rust from his layoff last season and has gotten himself into a groove at the plate. He has excellent power and despite struggling with Lowell last season, he featured some of that power in limited at-bats. Lavarnway can hit a fastball, especially one out and over the plate to him, where he can extend his arms and utilize his strong lower body. He can occasionally be tied up with fastballs up and under the hands, but he’s been quick on the ball during his recent streak while taking advantage of pitcher’s mistakes. Lavarnway’s walks have been a little down this season, but he has the reputation as a hitter with good discipline at the plate. Over the next 100 or so at-bats, it will be interesting to track how his patience trends and whether he cuts down on his strikeouts a bit. Lavarnway can be susceptible to breaking balls low and away, which will be an area that he’ll continue to have to work on to keep pitchers from attacking him there as the season wears on. With May coming to a close, he’s given a glimpse of the type of power can continue to develop with more experience against professional pitching.

Trending Up

Luis Exposito has begun to heat up and is 21 for his last 71. After struggling in April, Exposito has been looking more comfortable at the plate and looks to be returning to the form that elevated him within the system last season. Over his last 10 games, he has tallied 6 extra-base hits and has been making contact at a better rate. Look for Exposito to carry his recent trends into June…Over his last 21 1/3 innings, knuckleball pitcher Charlie Zink has held batters to 10 hits and only given up 3 earned runs. After getting off to a rocky start in April, Zink has had his knuckler going recently and gotten back to his 2008 form…Off to a very tough start in 2009, Che-Hsuan Lin has begun to turn the corner in May as well, posting a .796 OPS over his last 24 games. Lin has only fanned 2 times in his last 10 games after getting bit by the strikeout bug to start the season. His contact rates have been trending upwards and he looks to be back on track heading into June, looking much more comfortable and relaxed in the box.

Trending Down

Jorge Jimenez has cooled off in the month of May and is currently stuck in a 5 for 35 skid at the plate. He’s recently been lunging at the ball and has not making much solid contact during his funk. Of some concern is the 1 extra-base hit he has in 41 at-bats against left-handed pitching on the season…Right-handed reliever Richie Lentz has struggled since returning from the DL, especially with his control, though his velocity appears to be down some as well. Lentz has walked 13 batters in 11 1/3 innings during the stretch and hasn’t looked particularly sharp in his outings. He’s allowed an earned run in 4 straight appearances and looks like he is aiming the ball rather than letting it go…Mitch Dening is 4 for his last 32. He is without an extra-base hit in the recent slump and has had 4 multi-strikeout games over that stretch. Dening’s OPS has dipped to .515 in May after posting a .861 mark in April.