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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Opening Statements

The season is but a week old.  It's best not to overreact to half a dozen games.  As things stand, the Royals, Orioles, and Mets are all division leaders.  Something tells me that's not the way things are going to play out.  However, we spend the Hot Stove season pouring over payrolls and depth charts, imagining how Carl Crawford will look fielding a line drive off the Green Monster.  During Spring Training we watch odd melanges of half-assed veterans, anxious invitees, and youngsters playing out of position and hitting against  pitchers who may or may not have permission to throw their curveballs.  So, there really are instances when a team takes the field on Opening Day and you say, "Eureka!"

Nowhere was that response more pervasive than in Arlington this past weekend.  Certainly, I expected the defending American League Champions to be contenders again, but watching the Rangers club their way past the prohibitive AL favorites (Red Sox) I was reminded that last year's team may have only scratched the surface of its potential.  The Rangers have 30 extra-base hits in five games.  A significant portion of that damage has been done by Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler, two of the more injury-prone players in recent history, so there is a high likelihood that the Texas lineup will not be able to maintain its current depth for 162.  Nevertheless, every reporter who overhyped the Michael Young fiasco, bemoaned the departure of Cliff Lee, criticized the Adrian Beltre contract, or in any way contributed to the general impression that the 2010 Rangers were a fluke did his own team a considerable disservice.  Last season, the Rangers were dogged by controversy throughout the offseason and Ron Washington used it to spur them to an unprecedented performance.  It might've been difficult for them to re-harness that energy were they treated as the AL's foremost powerhouse.  But they weren't.  And after another offseason filled with criticism and second-guessing the Rangers are again playing with a chip on their shoulders.  They reminded us that even if they aren't the best team in the American League, they are at least in the conversation.

A similar situation has developed in Cincinnati.  The Reds dominated their division in 2010.  And, like the Rangers, their team has youth, depth, and payroll certainty, making it very likely that their best years are still ahead of them.  For some reason, however, punditry has favored the Cardinals this preseason, despite the fact that they lost their Ace and did very little to improve the problems which caused them to fall back of the Reds last year.  It pains me to say it, but the Cardinals just aren't a very well-constructed baseball team right now.  The real threat to a Cincinnati repeat in the NL Central is the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Reds made the first statement in a season-long battle by sweeping the Brewers on Opening Weekend.  Their underrated workhorse, Bronson Arroyo, the "Mark Buehrle of the National League," shrugged off his spring bout of mononucleosis to throw a seven-inning gem on Sunday afternoon, following two close games, one which the Reds won on a walk-off homer by Ramon Hernandez.  The Reds drew first blood, which means very little in the long run, but it should act as a reminder that they feature premier performers on both sides of the ball, something which few NL teams can boast.

A strong finish to 2010, an acclaimed manager, an active offseason, a vaunted farm system, and now a 4-0 start have made the Orioles a favorite darkhorse in the American League.  However, I'm more impressed by their AL East rival, the Toronto Blue Jays.  One could argue that both teams are vying for, at best, third place, but the increased parity in the division makes it possible that a few breaks could make it possible for one of these teams to sneak into the Wild Card race.  Ricky Romero's manhandling of the Twins furthered the impression that he could be the breakout pitcher of 2011.  (You can see more on Romero in my "21st Century Cy" post from the preseason.)  And, in the early going, the Jays have continued the power display of 2010, but with more balance (.304 AVG, .371 OBP, 17 BB, 19 K, 3 SB).  Obviously, it's a small sample size and we should not underestimate the fact that Twins are 6-20 against the Blue Jays since 2008.  It's clearly a good matchup for Toronto to open with, but I think the Jays will make everybody uncomfortable in 2011, especially when playing in the, Rogers Centre.  They've got an imposing, circular lineup and an frightening young pitching staff.  They could be erratic, but Romero, Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil are all guys with incredible "stuff."  No lineup looks forward to facing a stretch of pitcher like this, any one of whom could show up and be completely unhittable.  Whether they win 80 or 90, this is going to be a fun team to watch in 2011.

I think the fans of the D-Backs have a lot to look forward to.  The team is building around Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, Chris Young, and Daniel Hudson.  And everything about Kirk Gibson seems perfectly suited to this process.  However, as the D-Backs opened their season in Colorado we witnessed the difference between a team with lots of a potential and a team who's realized that potential.  Following the surprising runs by the Giants and Padres in 2010, it's ease to forget that the Rockies were the favorites for much of the season and have been to the playoffs twice in the last four years.  They are an efficient, well-oiled ballclub.  They take extra bases.  They turn double plays.  They limit baserunners and longballs.  They've got a deep bullpen and an impressive bench.  There are two other good teams in their division, the Giants and the Dodgers, both probably have deeper rotations than the Rockies, and in the NL West, the deepest rotation has, in recent years, usually been the key to victory.  But unlike the Giants, who are defensively challenged and the Dodgers, who trot out players you thought were retired (and probably should be) at three or four positions everyday, the Rockies are above average in every aspect of the game.  Is a well-rounded team better than one which absolutely dominates one aspect of the game?  Not necessarily, especially when that aspect is starting pitching.  But those that believe that NL West race is all about the L.A. v. S.F. rivalry are ignoring an elephant in the room.  

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