Into the First Turn   (05/23/01)

Unlike a horse race, where the leader after the first quarter of the race rarely wins, in baseball, the early leaders often end up winning.  So with just a quarter of the season completed, it's pretty clear who has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.  Some of my preseason predictions are looking pretty good at this point; Boston and Philadelphia are both in first place.  Some of them look pretty bad; Seattle and Minnesota are both in first when I tabbed them for last.  Oh well.  Despite my mixed success, here's a quarter-of-the-way look at the contenders and their chances.

AL East - Boston's stay in first place has been pretty remarkable considering they've been without Nomar Garciaparra, and that Hideo Nomo and closer Derrek Lowe haven't been consistently effective.  They'll get Nomar back in about a month.  By then, they'll also know if David Cone has anything left.  If he doesn't, they'll return either Tomokazu Ohka or Paxton Crawford back to the rotation.  Both had pitched reasonably well before being sent down to clear room for Cone.  The Yanks, meanwhile, have played 13 games against Kansas City and Baltimore, winning 12 of those games.  Against teams that are actually decent, they've gone 12-19.  Expect more of the same as their offense is not playoff quality relative to their pitching. They will have to make trades to stay in this race.  Toronto's offense is once again bombarding the opposition with home runs.  However, their starting pitching will have to do a much better job if they hope to stick with the front runners.

AL Central - Minnesota has been surprisingly hot to start the season, but it's unlikely they can keep it up all season.  Their current pythagorean projection has them with a record of 25-18 (they're actual record is 30-13) and their bullpen isn't good enough to keep that kind of magic going for 162 games.  Cleveland is playing very close to it's projection (projected wins - 27, actual wins - 28) and that's with 5 starts from Tim Drew (ERA of 6.75).  With the return of Jaret Wright, the Tribe will be in first for good by the middle of June.  The White Sox will not be as fortunate.  With Frank Thomas lost for the year and the starting pitching in complete disarray, they have no chance of competeing for anything but to stay out of the AL Central basement.  Look for them to deal as much salary as possible, namely David Wells, James Baldwin, Harold Baines and Sandy Alomar Jr.

AL West - Oakland got off to a horrible start, but have managed to battle back to .500.  Hudson, Zito and Mulder are finally on track so all the A's need is a decent 4th starter to challenge Seattle.  Cory Lidle could be that guy.  Seattle is way out in front for the division lead, but are 4 games ahead of projection.  They've scored far more runs than expected for a team with a .772 OPS - 7th best in the AL - but they might be able to maintain their standing with another good hitter in the line-up.  Regardless, this race is far from over.  Anaheim, however, has little chance of making up 11 games on Seattle with only 2 starters pitching consistently well.  Even if Ismael Valdes gets back on track, they will need better run production to make it close.

NL East - Philadelphia is in first.  They will stay in first.  Atlanta now says that Tom Glavine has been pitching with a sore shoulder since spring training and will pitch much better now that he's healthy.  Funny, but that sore shoulder didn't stop him from pitching well on April 18th, April 28th and now May 21st.  Oddly enough, notoriously pitcher friendly umpires Gary Cedarstrom, Tim McLelland and Eric Cooper (who was behind the plate when Nomo threw his no-hitter) were behind the plate on those dates.  It'll be interesting to see how Glavine's shoulder feels when someone not as sympathetic is behind the plate.  The Braves also claim that Smoltz is almost completely back, but judging from his two starts, his location still looks pretty un-Smoltz-like.  With Millwood out indefinitely and John Burkett pitching MUCH better than his career norm, the Braves pitching success will depend largely on their bullpen.  Which is why the Braves will fall short.  Other than Mike Remlinger and John Rocker, the Braves bullpen is very pedestrian.  So which is more likely: that Chris Seelbach, Joe Slusarski, Matt Whiteside and Kerry Ligtenberg will pitch better than their career norms or that the Phillies' Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell will continue to hit well below their career norms?   The Mets, on the other hand, are done.  They will need much more than Al Leiter and Rick Reed to make up the ground they lost with their terrible start.  Glendon Rusch has looked very hittable and Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel obviously aren't the answer.  If the Marlins could get any kind of consistent hitting, they could conceivably make a run.  If Luis Castillo could get back to hitting balls on the ground (where he has a good chance of beating the throw) rather than balls in the air (where he has a good chance of it carrying to an infielder), that would help.

NL Central - St. Louis is currently in first but Houston, Chicago and Milwaukee are close behind.  St. Louis has been particularly surprising as they have remained in first without Mark McGwire or Rick Ankiel.  Albert Pujols, JD Drew and Matt Morris have carried that team so far, a feat the fans should get used to as the Cards have very little in the farm system and will be getting long in the tooth at the major league level in a couple of years.  Houston's rotation, outside of Wade Miller, has been surprisingly ineffective.  They may not want to, but they may be forced to start Roy Oswalt and Octavio Dotel if Lima, Elarton and Reynolds continue to struggle.  The Cubs have struggled to score runs and without Bill Mueller in the line-up for another month or two, that will continue to be a problem.  Working in their favor is that their starting pitching has been very good despite Kerry Wood's struggles.  If Wood can get straightened out - 13 walks in his last 10 innings - the Cubs will have enough pitching to get them through this dry spell in pretty decent shape.  They still need a decent hitter to play center, though, if they hope to compete for the division title.  The surprise in the division has to be Milwaukee.  Not that they're in the top 4, but that their starting pitching has been good enough to get them within 2 games of the lead.  However, that staff allows far too many baserunners to continue it's current run of success.

NL West - The West is still up for grabs; every team in the division is within 2 games of the lead.  Arizona still needs someone to follow Johnson and Schilling in the rotation. Currently, their 3-4-5 starters have a combined ERA of 6.34.  Colorado still needs to figure out how to score runs on the road - they've scored just 89 runs on the road, compared to 201 at home.  LA still can't score at home or away, just 198 total, good for 10th in the NL.  San Francisco is still struggling to find anyone outside of Bonds, Aurilia and Kent to produce runs.  They also seem to be suffering from an implosion in the starting rotation, as Mark Gardner, Kirk Rueter and Livan Hernandez have been completely ineffective. The only team that is doing the unexpected is San Diego.  The general consensus was that the Pads hadn't done anything this offseason to improve the offense.  However, theirs is a fine example of what happens when you replace 3 guys who make lots of outs - Al Martin, Ruben Rivera and Eric Owens - with three guys who don't - Bubba Trammell, Mike Darr and Mark Kotsay.  Given the park they play in, their starting pitching - with the exception of Bobby Jones - has been mediocre at best.  Even if they bring up some of their young starters to help the pitching situation, they still face a big problem with their middle infield.  Donaldo Mendez has great range but can't throw or hit; Chris Gomez and Alex Arias can throw, but have no range and hit only in the strictest sense of the word.  This division will come down to who makes the best trades.

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