On Opening Day I introduced you to ten "borderline contenders," teams with moderately realistic postseason ambitions, for whom I believed April baseball really did matter. Their record wasn't really the issue, so much as unproven aspects of their roster, the performance of which might provide insight into the team's long-term prospects. These are the teams I've been following most closely this month and though May is still a week away, I'm prepared to offer some modestly confident analysis.
Arizona Diamondbacks: B
They are at the bottom of the their division at 7-9, but the D-Backs remain a very intriguing team. They are fifth in the NL in scoring, despite the fact that their best player, Justin Upton, has gotten off to a terrible start (640 OPS). Stephen Drew (902 OPS) and Kelly Johnson (1088 OPS) have been great, and Chris Young has shown improvement. Arizona has power throughout the lineup, as well as a depth of talent in players like Gerardo Parra, Brandon Allen, Chris Snyder, and Cole Gillespie, which has already proved important following injuries to Miguel Montero and Conor Jacksion.
If the offense continues to rake, they D-Backs will be sneaky good, because Dan Haren isn't going to have a 5.19 ERA for very long and Edwin Jackson is looking sharp, despite modest results (1-1, 3.81 ERA). He went eight innings against St. Louis on Wednesday and only threw 106 pitches. His WHIP has remained low (1.23) and he's throwing in the high 90s, which makes for a pretty potent combination. The progress of Brandon Webb and the development of Ian Kennedy weight heavily on this team. If the rotation gets just a little deeper, the D-Backs could make the Dodgers and Rockies very uncomfortable.
Atlanta Braves: D+
I wasn't on the Braves bandwagon in the preseason and I remain unimpressed, though it has nothing to do with their 8-9 record (which places them, oddly, at the bottom of the NL East). What worries me most is that starting rotation looks a lot thinner without Javier Vazquez. Derek Lowe has not rebounded from his poor second half in '09. He's walked fourteen batter in his first four starts. Early indications are that Jair Jurrjens (5.48 ERA) could be suffering a bit after throwing 215 innings last season. This could be the prototypical "growing pains" year for Jurrens, like what we saw from Cole Hamels and Ervin Santana in '09. Kenshin Kawakami has been satisfactory as the #5 (4.76 ERA), but I don't think Atlanta would be comfortable asking him to do much more than that. And, as I've expressed before in greater detail, though I respect Tommy Hanson's talent, I don't generally trust second-year starting pitchers to lead contending teams because they still have a round of adjustments to make as the league gets an extended look at them.
The Braves rotation has to be dominant if they have any hope of contending, because the lineup may be even shallower than we expected. Atlanta has five regulars hitting below the Mendoza line. Jason Heyward has been great, but no other Braves outfielder has an OPS above 550. As Doc Halladay demonstrated earlier this week, pitchers can throw the kitchen sink at Heyward, Chipper Jones, and Brian McCann, then coast for six outs. It's quite possible that Bobby Cox will work his magic and by June this will be a very different team, but I expect the Phillies to run away with the division. That means Atlanta's entrance would need to be through the Wild Card, but they'll face stiff competition and I'm not sure they're up to the challenge.
Chicago White Sox: C+
Of all the predictions I made this preseason, many of which will turn out to be wrong, this is the only one I'm already regretting. To be fair, it has more to do with the Twins than the Sox. Minnesota's keeping pace with the Yankees and Rays. Having watched them a great deal during the first couple weeks, I'm convinced they are much better than I gave them credit for in the preseason, mainly because Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano are genuinely healthy.
The White Sox will have a hard time digging themselves out of this early hole, but things are not as bad as they seem on the South Side. John Danks has been exceptional (3-0, 1.55 ERA) and the rest of the rotation is going to turn itself around. Peavy will shake off the rust. Gavin Floyd will recover, much as he did in 2009. Freddy Garcia has actually been very good except for one bad start in Toronto. And Mark Buehrle will be Mark Buehrle.
The question I had about the ChiSox going into the year had to do with their run-scoring and while they aren't exactly setting the world on fire (10th in the AL), there are a couple good indicators. Alex Rios is off to a strong start (849 OPS), providing a much-needed middle-of-the-order presence. Andruw Jones (1165 OPS) has been outstanding in the DH role. When Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez pull themselves out of their annual April slumps, the offense could be...respectable.
Cincinnati Reds: F
Nobody in the rotation has registered as many as two wins and the Reds are 29th in ERA (6.20), saved from last place only by the 36-run drubbing the Brewers gave the Pirates this week. Mike Leake, a rookie who skipped the minor leagues entirely, has been Cincinnati's best pitcher. The quest to find an Ace has not gone well. Bronson Arroyo, coming off an excellent second half in '09, has given up 18 runs in his last 15 innings and his ERA is still better than that of Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey, who Dusty Baker contentedly allows to throw 110 pitches in every five-inning start. Ouch. My elbow hurts.
After suffering through the Reds getting swept by the Pirates earlier in the month, I am convinced that this is not the year the long-suffering Cincinnati fans have been waiting for. I don't believe they will play this poorly throughout the season, but the idea that they could be a "darkhorse contender" now seems mighty far-fetched. 80 wins would be a serious achievement for this group of players, the core of which might still be good enough to build a franchise around...but the payoff is still at least a year away. Reds fans must hope that Dusty Baker's swan song doesn't end in Tommy John surgeries for Bailey, Leake, and Johnny Cueto.
Los Angeles Dodgers: C
The Dodger lead the NL in scoring, and yet they're 8-10, at the bottom of the NL West. Vicente Padilla, predictably, has not pitched like he did down the stretch in 2009. Chad Billingsley, to my considerable surprise, has not rebounded from his poor finish. Their failures have left an unfortunate number of innings in the hands of Jeff Weaver, Charlie Haeger, and the brothers Ortiz (not actually related).
Even if Billingsley gets himself turned around, the pitching staff remains thin and Ned Colletti is likely still handcuffed by the ownership's divorce proceedings. I'm not ready to declare Los Angeles' season dead in the water, because there is an abundance of talent, especially in the lineup, but Colorado looks like a far superior team, and they have depth across the board. By the time the Dodgers find remedy for their shortcomings (if they ever do) the division may be out of reach.
Milwaukee Brewers: B
I was quite outspoken about my Brewers love this preseason, but well aware that my expecting a significant improvement from the rotation was more about gut than genuine insight. I wasn't exactly thrilled that the team opted for Jeff Suppan instead of Manny Parra or Chris Narveson. Doug Davis has been a serious cause for concern, as he has yet to pitch into the sixth inning. And the Milwaukee Ace, Yovani Gallardo, has suffered from control problems in the early going which have shortened his outings and further exposed the bullpen.
Somehow, I remain optimistic. It probably has something to do with the Brewers three-game sweep of the lowly Pirates this week, in which they outscored Pittsburgh 36-1. Dave Bush and Randy Wolf have looked quite good. Since I see no reason that Gallardo won't be fine in the long run, I can cautiously suggest that the Brewers have two more solid starters than they did in 2009, when they still managed to win 80 games. Moreover, early indications are that Rickie Weeks is at full strength following his wrist surgery and Casey McGehee has not bought into the conventional wisdom that his rookie year was flukish. Milwaukee's destiny probably still depends as much on St. Louis as on the Brewers themselves, but they are certainly our best shot at pennant race in the mediocre NL Central.
Oakland Athletics: A-
On Opening Day I said that "the A's might have the most to gain from a fast start." If I'm correct, than they can consider it "gained," as they lead the division with a 10-7 record, despite losing two of three this week against the Yankees. The Oakland lineup remains a mystery, both in terms of production and composition. They have torched the backend of bullpens (and the Angels rotation), but strong young arms like Doug Fister, Brian Matusz, and Phil Hughes have given them fits. The lineup card looks different every night, as they already have thirteen hitters who have appeared in at least half their games. Right now Daric Barton (.388 SLG) and Kurt Suzuki (3 HR) are what passes for middle-of-the-order hitters.
However, you don't need to score a whole lot when your rotational ERA is 3.07. Dallas Braden and Ben Sheets held the vaunted Yankees to four earned runs and ten hits in a dozen innings over the last two nights. In the fashion of the '09 Giants, a winning record is hardly out of realm of possibility. Still, I expect they will be playing meaningful baseball on September 1st, but not October 1st.
San Francisco Giants: B-
Speaking of the Giants: being swept by the Padres this week really took the luster off their 7-2 start. Like Oakland, they have pitching in spades, but San Diego sent Clayton Richard, Mat Latos, and Jon Garland to the mound - not exactly Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz - and they held the Giants to two earned runs in 20 innings. Yikes. What's going to happen when they face good starting pitching?
The Dodgers, Rockies, and Diamondbacks all have powerful and patient lineups, capable of wearing down even Lincecum and Cain. Unless San Francisco can make serious strides in run production, I think a third place finish is optimistic.
Seattle Mariners: C+
Newsflash: the Mariners can't score runs. With their major offseason additions - Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley - off to slow starts, it doesn't look like much has changed.
Is it possible, however, that Franklin Gutierrez could develop into the middle of the order hitter they so desperately need? Gutierrez gets accolades for his defense, but has been underrated as a hitter. He showed considerable improvement during his first season as a Mariner, has reached the magical age of 27, and is currently hitting .375.
The Mariners are no worse than they were when April began. Figgins and Bradley will almost certainly improve, but the run-scoring will never be a strength. The pitching, however, could be even better than advertised. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas have been outstanding in the early going. Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard are both on pace to join the rotation before the end of May (Lee makes his first start this week). WIth King Felix picking up where he left off in '09, the Mariners have a unusual combination of dominance and depth in their starting pitching.
Texas Rangers: B+
They had a rough six-game losing streak during their east-coast road trip, but losing to New York and Boston shouldn't be reason to panic. Reinforcements are on the way in the form of Justin Smoak, Ian Kinsler, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which should help to jump-start the offense. I expect the lineup to be something of a behemoth by midsummer, as Julio Borbon and Josh Hamilton also break out of early slumps.
My concern preseason had to do with Texas's ability to build upon or even maintain the level of quality starting pitching they got in their surprising 88-win '09 campaign. Scott Feldman, the jewel of the staff last year, has gotten off to a poor start, as has Rich Harden, their major offseason prize. However, Colby Lewis, C. J. Wilson, and Matt Harrison have risen to the occasion. With Brandon McCarthy, Derek Holland, and Martin Perez waiting in the wings (and Harden certainly capable of turning himself around in a hurry), I am more convinced than ever that this team has as much depth and balance as any team in the AL West.