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Published: Sunday, 7/4/2004

Hens' offense tops class

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Manager Larry Parrish (15) has the Mud Hens playing hard, as evidenced by 15 come-from-behind victories. By JOHN WAGNER Manager Larry Parrish (15) has the Mud Hens playing hard, as evidenced by 15 come-from-behind victories. By JOHN WAGNER
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Ever heard of report cards being issued in early July?

Admittedly it's not very common, what with school being out of session for the summer.

But the Mud Hens are only halfway through their 2004 season, which means it's the perfect time to grade the team on its performance to this point.

Here's a look at each phase of the organization, with a letter grade based on an A-to-F scale, attached to the performance.

And as you read these grades, here's a number to keep in mind: 41-37. In each of the Hens' first two seasons at Fifth Third Field, the team had that same record.

But the 2002 team went 19-13 in the final month of the season to win the International League's West Division crown, while last year's squad finished the season 10-22 and nearly finished last in the division.

After 78 games this season, the Mud Hens are again 41-37.

OFFENSE

It's hard to argue with a team that ranks second in the International League in both batting average and runs scored. But the performance can be nit-picked.

There have been moments of inconsistency, including 32 games in which the Hens have scored three or fewer runs. The Hens have scored more than five runs a game despite having a leadoff hitter, Nook Logan, with an on-base percentage right at the .300 mark.

And the bottom of the order has been inconsistent at best.

Those are nit-picks, though. The Hens have found a way to average 4.6 runs per game after Marcus Thames went to the big leagues June 22.

Thames still ranks among the IL's top home run and RBI threats despite having missed the last 10 games, while all-star Joe Vitiello and Andy Barkett also rank among the league's top power threats.

And Logan, who leads the league in steals by a wide margin, drew 12 walks last month after earning just six in the first two months of the season combined.

Grade: A-

DEFENSE

We'll do more than just nit-pick here, because the Hens haven't been very good defensively this season.

How bad has it been? Toledo's 78 errors through Thursday ranked as the third-most in the International League. What's more, those miscues have resulted in 64 unearned runs, the most in the league. And there's no way to measure the plays that a normal Triple-A team makes - and this team doesn't.

Shortstop Danny Klassen has improved his defense from last season; he made 11 errors in his first 76 games at short this year after making 19 bobbles in the same number of games a year ago. But there isn't any other position on the diamond where the Hens defense can be considered anything better than average.

Grade: D

STARTING PITCHING

There hasn't been much change in the rotation, with right-handers Pat Ahearne and Shane Loux combining with southpaw Andy Van Hekken to make all of their scheduled starts this year. John Ennis spent considerable time here before moving to the bullpen, while the fifth starter's role has been split among several players.

But while the names have been consistent, the performances have been anything but consistent. Toledo's rotation made 35 "quality starts'' - starts lasting six innings or more where the opposition scored three or fewer runs - in the team's first 80 games, and won 26 of them. More than half of the rotation's starts over the first three months of the season have not been "quality starts.''

What's more, the team's offense has masked some of these problems by piling up huge run totals. For example, Van Hekken has a 6-2 record despite a 4.61 ERA because the offense averages 6.94 runs every time he pitches.

Of all the grades, this one has the best chance of improving in the second half: Ahearne and Loux should pitch better than they did in the first half, while James Baldwin has been solid in his short time here. And Double-A Erie has terrific late-season candidates to enter the rotation in lefty Wil Ledezma and right-hander Matt Roney.

Grade: C+

RELIEF PITCHING

For the first two months of the season, closer Franklyn German was terrific - and the rest of the bullpen was terrible.

In April and May German earned three wins and 12 saves in 20 appearances, blowing only one save in that span.

The rest of the bullpen had just three wins and one save in those two months, blowing six saves and earning seven losses.

So imagine manager Larry Parrish's concern when German was promoted to Detroit June 20.

Crazy thing is, the rest of the bullpen has stepped up in German's absence.

Ennis has claimed the closer's role, earning two wins and six saves in his first eight relief appearances. And in the month of June Toledo relievers earned eight wins and 11 saves while blowing five saves and earning three losses.

Can they keep it together the rest of the season? That's a good question.

Grade: B-

MANAGER

Parrish has done well with the players at his disposal. And the Hens play hard; there's no other way to explain the team's 15 come-from-behind wins, including eight when the game is tied or the Hens trail after seven.

Parrish and his staff have had both successes and failures from a development standpoint. Van Hekken has pitched better than he did last season; Thames was the IL's best player before his call-up; and Barkett is having the best offensive season of his career.

But Eric Owens, a career .264 hitter in the big leagues who stole 37 bases the past two years, is batting just .241 with 11 stolen bases for the Hens. And southpaw Eric Eckenstahler seems no closer to harnessing his talent than he was when he first came to Toledo in 2002.

Another minus is that, at least to this point, none of the players promoted from Toledo to the parent Tigers has done much at the major league level.

Grade: B

DETROIT FRONT OFFICE

No grade has seen as much fluctuation this season as this mark has.

On Opening Day the grade wasn't very high, but it soon grew as quality players such as Vitiello, Owens and Mike DiFelice were added to the roster.

The stability of this year's Tigers also has helped keep the Mud Hen roster more stable, a big plus after last year's team was picked clean before the start of August.

But Parrish has been left short-handed on several occasions recently, and the Tigers apparent unwillingness to send the Hens top performers from Double-A Erie - such as Ledezma and his Eastern League-leading 9-2 record and 2.34 ERA - is puzzling.

The recent release of pitcher Jimmy Haynes after the former big-league 15-game winner threw six shutout innings in Richmond was a head-scratcher as well.

Grade: B-

TOLEDO FRONT OFFICE

One number says it all: 310,172. That's the team's total tickets sold through the first 45 games of this season.

That's an average of 6,893 tickets sold per opening, putting the Hens sixth in the 14-team IL. And with 27 dates still to play, including six more Saturdays, it's not unreasonable to think the Hens can break the single-season attendance record of 547,204 set in 2002.

One complaint, albeit a small one: The Hens have piled up nearly all of their big promotions on the weekends, leaving nothing but baseball to entice fans to Fifth Third Field on weekdays. Isn't there something that can be done on weeknights - say, a "Dime-a-Dog Night'' or a "Thirsty Tuesday'' - to attract more fans to the park on those days?

Grade: A-

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com or 419-724-6481.


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