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By Mike Ivcic
With another week gone by in this young season, there have clearly been some surprises that few people expected. From a disturbing trend four games into a new stadium to certain teams and players performing at an unexpected rate, the new baseball season has once again proved that preseason predictions can be turned on their head rather quickly.
1) Surprise team – Florida Marlins
The biggest shock this season has been the 11-1 Florida Marlins, but let’s put this briefly into perspective before anyone gets too carried away. First, they have beaten the 1-11 Washington Nationals six times, so there’s one caveat. Yes, they took two of three from the Mets at home and swept the Braves on the road, but this is a team that isn’t necessarily built for success over the long haul. Their bullpen is not particularly deep, and with closer Matt Lindstrom having some early season arm troubles, the number of quality relievers drops even more. The Marlins also tend to rely on the longball a bit too much, something else that can hurt teams in June and July if the bats go cold. The one upside is that the starting pitching, thought to be a major weakness for this club, has been solid and at times sensational. If that can continue, they could be in the NL East race come the final weekend.
2) Surprise stadium – new Yankee Stadium
Four games, twenty homeruns. I don’t think Yankees officials expected those kinds of numbers when they designed the House that Steinbrenner built. The Yankees split their four game series with Cleveland, but a 22-4 loss on Saturday in a nationally televised game displayed firsthand to fans everywhere how easily the ball flies out of the park. The team has called on engineers to ask their help in fixing the problem, but this might not be something that can be rectified until the offseason, if at all. For a team that made a concerted effort in free agency to focus on pitching, spending almost $32 million this season alone for the alphabet soup of C.C. and A.J., the frequency of homeruns is not a good thing.
3) Surprise pitchers – Heath Bell up, Chien-Ming Wang down
Some might be yelling for Zack Greinke here, but we’ll get to him further down. My nominee here is the new SD closer. Aside from the tandem of Peavy and Young that I mentioned last week, another key to the Padres startling 9-4 start has been the absolute lockdown nature of Heath Bell. A former Met, he spoke openly about his desire to save the first game at Citi Field, a feat he accomplished Monday night. He has seven saves total this season in only two weeks, and his absence was evident when he was unavailable Sunday afternoon and Edwin Moreno failed to protect a one-run lead in the ninth, giving up a 2-run game winning blast to Raul Ibanez. Meanwhile Wang has made three starts and pitched a total of six innings, losing all three decisions. His current stat line reads:
3GP, 3 GS, 0-3, 6.0 IP, 23 H, 23 R, 23 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 2 HR, 4.83 WHIP, 34.50 ERA
It’s a pretty simple statement, actually. If he doesn’t shape up, and quickly, the Yankees will be watching their second consecutive postseason.
4) Surprise hitters – (tie) Miguel Cabrera, Raul Ibanez, Luis Castillo up
It’s simply not fair to pick just one of these players, as all three have been a bit of a shock in some way. Anyone who watched the World Baseball Classic saw an overweight, seemingly disinterested Cabrera, and many wondered if this would finally be the season where his numbers diminished so much that he would become an afterthought. All he’s done is lead the AL in batting with a .489 average while clubbing 4 homeruns and knocking in 12. In Philadelphia, Ibanez was thought to be a solid addition, but one that would make the Phillies extremely susceptible to left-handed pitching. While the latter is still true, the former is an understatement, as Ibanez is tied for the NL in homers with 5 after delivering the aforementioned game-winner Sunday afternoon. His presence at No. 6 in the batting order provides the Phils with better balance top-to-bottom in the order than last year, even if they’re more unbalanced physically standing at the plate. And finally, one person who isn’t missing Shea Stadium’s 55,000-capacity in the least – Luis Castillo. The Mets second-baseman is batting a stunning .389 after two weeks, a far cry from his sub-.250 average for most of 2008. Once considered trade bait and the attention of public scorn, Castillo has become a legitimate on-base threat at the bottom of the NY order, even if he’d still probably be better served flipping with the pitcher, a la Tony LaRussa, and hitting ninth.
5) Surprise AL division leaders – Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners
Again, it might only be two weeks in, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thought these three teams would be atop their respective divisions at the same time at ANY point in the season. The Royals might be the team with the best shot to actually make the postseason, since every team in the AL Central has a few huge flaws. The most underrated story of this season is the genius move of manager Trey Hillman to give Gil Meche the opening day start and allow Zack Greinke to face opponent’s number 2 starters. This has allowed Greinke to be more relaxed, which he’s shown by throwing 20 scoreless innings so far this season. Meanwhile, it’s only a matter of time before the Blue Jays drop, considering the talent in Boston, New York, and Tampa, but they shouldn’t be totally discounted either. Any team with Roy Halladay, who is one again in Cy Young-caliber form, will be able to avoid long losing streaks and stay in the playoff race. The Mariners are the biggest shock thus far, looking to make the postseason one year removed from a 116-loss campaign. A number of factors have keyed the resurgence, like Endy Chavez’s .392 average as an everyday player, Jarrod Washburn’s 1.29 ERA in three starts, and the return of Ken Griffey Jr. for a feel-good story as well as team leadership. With Ichiro back in the lineup, Seattle only needs to get Carlos Silva straightened out to join Washburn, Erik Bedard, and ace Felix Hernandez in a formidable rotation to have a realistic chance at staying atop the AL West all season.
This week, watch for…
1) Mariners schedule – vs Tampa (4/21-23), at LA (4/24-26)
2) Mets at Cardinals (4/21-23)
3) Yankees at Red Sox (4/24-26)
Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper
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