When in doubt, I always come back to the standings page, which, thanks to the magic of the IntraWeb, is more fun than humans should be allowed to have.
Trolling around today, here are a few things that grabbed my hook ...
Nobody's really noticed because they're in the wrong division, but the Toronto Blue Jays are making some noise, particularly with their bats. It's the Blue Jays -- and not the Yankees or Red Sox or Athletics or anybody else -- who lead the American League with 275 runs. Granted, SkyDome generally favors the hitters to a degree (or two), and of course it's early. But the Blue Jays are now 23-22, and I don't think it's a fluke.
In Billy Beane's first year as general manager in Oakland, the A's went 74-88. In his second, they went 87-75. And in his third, they went 91-70 to capture their first division title since 1992.
In J.P. Ricciardi's first year as general manager in Toronto, the Jays went 78-84. In his second, they're off to a pretty good start. In his third, will they capture their first division title since 1993? No, they probably won't, because 91 (or even 95) wins won't be enough to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox. But this is a team -- and a general manager -- to keep your eye on.
The Kansas City Royals have dropped from first place to second, but they're still six games above .500 (and please, no e-mails about the silliness of the terminology; if the Royals lose their next six games, then they'll be at exactly .500). However, despite playing against generally poor competition so far, the Royals have actually been outscored (206-203).
There are still people who believe this team is good enough to win half their games this season, and thus lock in Mike Sweeney through 2007. Maybe. But of the Royals' next 31 games, 28 are against teams that won at least 92 games last season. Sure, the schedule gets easier afterward, but if the Royals tank in June, spirits will fade, ticket revenues will drop, and good players -- specifically, Carlos Beltran and Jason Grimsley -- will be traded. By July of 2003, it might be time to start thinking about April of 2004.
Has anybody else noticed that the A's are relying on ... dare we say it? ... pitching and defense? This year, the A's added Chris Singleton, who can't hit for beans but plays a mean center field. The addition of Singleton pushed Terrence Long to left field, a position for which he's much better suited. Eric Chavez is a Gold Glove third baseman, and Mark Ellis could play shortstop if he weren't playing second. For years, Billy Beane claimed that he couldn't afford players who could hit and play defense, so he got guys who could hit. But the 2003 A's are, I suspect, a very good defensive team. Throw in Hudson-Zito-Mulder, and the A's have allowed only 150 runs this season, fewest in the American League and second-fewest in the majors.
Which points to something that I don't think a lot of people -- even author Michael Lewis, perhaps -- have noticed. The A's philosophy is not simply to get good hitters and attempt to bludgeon their opponents into submission. The A's philosophy is basically, "We have x amount of money to spend, and if we have y run differential we'll win enough games to reach the postseason. Now, how do we connect x and y?"
Some years, that might mean Terrence Long plays in center field and Jeremy Giambi plays in left. But other years, that might mean Chris Singleton plays in center and Long's in left.
One of the hallmarks of a great mind is flexibility.
The first-place Braves have outscored their opponents by 44 runs. The second-place Expos have outscored their opponents by 36 runs. The third-place Phillies have outscored their opponents by 41 runs.
Do those numbers mean anything? I guess we'll know in four months.
The Cincinnati Reds have scored 220 runs. That's good; only four National League teams have scored more. The Cincinnati Reds have surrendered 271 runs. That's bad; nobody, not even the Rockies or the Padres, have surrendered more.
Hmmm ... Lots of runs scored, lots of runs allowed ... and a new ballpark. Gotta be that new ballpark, right? After all, it's not even 330 feet down the lines, and the power alleys are a piece of cake for today's HGH- and Nautilus-reinforced sluggers.
Well, maybe. But while there have been 11 runs scored per game in the Reds' home games at Great American Ballpark, there have been 11.5 runs scored per game in the Reds' road games. Which is a roundabout way of saying that while Great American Ballpark might well be a Great Hitter's Ballpark, all we know now is that Cincinnati's hitters have been good and Cincinnati's pitchers have been bad.
Before this season, the general thinking was that the Dodgers would go as far as Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort took them. Well, Dreifort's been the worst of the Dodgers' five starters ... and he's been pretty good. Brown's been brilliant (4-1, 2.51), and Kaz Ishii (3-1, 2.76), Odalis Perez (3-2, 2.93), and Hideo Nomo (5-4, 3.04) haven't been too shabby, either. Without checking, I will postulate that the Dodgers are the only team in the majors with five starters pitching so well.
Oh, and they also have four relief pitchers with ERA's lower than 2.06 (Eric Gagne's the worst of this quartet, at 2.05).
The Dodgers are only three games behind the Giants, and they're only three games behind the Giants because they've allowed an absurdly low number of runs: 134, the lowest in the majors and easily the lowest in the league.
Before this season, I thought the Dodgers were a third-place team (or maybe a second-place team; I don't exactly remember). But people like Kevin Brown have a funny way of making people like Rob Neyer look foolish.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.