Yankees will be rolling come October

Originally Published: April 14, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Happens every year.

Happened last year. We bet it happens this year too.

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There's always some team nobody expected to make the playoffs that rides a shocking start all the way into October. Last year's mystery guest: your Chicago White Sox, ladies and gentlemen.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the April standings, there's always some other team that everybody picked to win -- but starts the season looking as if it couldn't beat the Bangor Lumberjacks. It then trampolines back into the playoffs anyway. Your prime 2005 example: those Houston Astronauts.

Happens every year. And it will happen again. So who's going to pull it off this season? That's our question of the day. Well, two questions, actually:

Which of those hot early teams are for real? And what team is most likely to recover from a lousy start?

We polled a bunch of baseball people this week. Here's how they saw it:

FOR REAL OR NOT?

Detroit Tigers
The verdict: For real
In the 12 previous seasons under this playoff format, seven other teams started 5-0. Five of them made the playoffs. All of them finished with a winning record -- even the 2003 Royals. These Tigers might not be the '05 White Sox. But even this spring, as Jim Leyland began lighting their fire and pitching phenoms Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya started blowing up the radar guns, the buzz was: the Tigers are better than most people think.

"They could be the surprise team in that division, because they're certainly going to hit," said one scout. … "If the manager can get those veteran players to keep playing hard," said another, "they have a good chance of staying in it -- if they stay healthy." … "I like Leyland. I like their offense. And Verlander is the real deal," said a GM. "There's always somebody that comes out of the pack, and this is a good candidate to be one of those teams."

Milwaukee Brewers
The verdict: For real (mostly)
Only two other seasons in Brewers history started with five-game winning streaks -- 1987 and 1978. And they missed the playoffs in both of them. This season might well have the same ending. But with all those rising young stars in their infield, these Brewers should not be confused with the Tyler Houston-Alex Ochoa-Ruben Quevedo Brew Crew of yesteryear.

"They're not a 100-win team, but they're legit," said one NL executive. "They're a solid team. They don't have a lot of holes. They out-fundamental you. And they're built for more than one year." … But the same exec also said: "I still question the pitching staff, just because they don't have a bunch of proven people. Is Derrick Turnbow a one-year wonder, or is he a legit closer?" And one NL scout said, flatly: "I don't think they can contend. They had a very favorable schedule to start the season, with the Pirates and Arizona at home."

Colorado Rockies
The verdict: Not for real
Except for some tweaks to the supporting cast, these Rockies sure do look a lot like the same team that finished last in the NL West last year -- only older. Which is a good thing if you ran 19 rookies out there the year before, as the Rockies did. There is promise here. And there is talent in the system. But is this team going to go from 67 wins to the playoffs? Sorry.

"I think they just had a good week," said one front-office man. … "On paper, I can't get too excited about that team," said an NL GM, "even though 85 might win that division."

Cincinnati Reds
The verdict: Not for real
This is one funky team. What the Reds do well, they do really well. They lead the league in homers and steals, for example. But there's no need to hire a private investigator to find their warts, either. Their pitching staff had a 5.45 ERA after eight games. And they were last in the league in defense, with 12 errors (three times as many as St. Louis). So unless Bronson Arroyo joins the 20-win, 40-homer club, this probably isn't the year.

"You've got to like their offense," said one NL executive. "You can't like their pitching staff. But they're no fun to play. You've gotta outscore them."

Chicago Cubs
The verdict: Split decision
The Cubs confused our panel more than any team on the for-real-or-not list. Their offense is more well-rounded. Their bullpen is deeper. But without some feel for what they'll get out of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, they're a mess to figure out.

"As long as the two big guys are still out, it's hard to see them hanging around the whole year," said one scout. … But a scout who likes this team said: "Psychologically, to sweep the Cardinals in their first series of the year is a huge thing, and especially to do it without Wood and Prior. And this is not as good a Cardinals team. The gap is a lot shorter than it was."

WHO WILL RECOVER AND WHO WON'T?

New York Yankees
The verdict: See ya in October
We don't need to spend much time on this one. The laugh track, when we merely asked our panel whether the Yankees would recover, said it all.

"Obviously," said one scout. … "Definitely," said another. …"That's an easy one," laughed another scout. … "It was just one bad week," said an NL executive. "And that's all."

Chicago White Sox
The verdict: No problem
Another unanimous decision. Whatever their 1-4 start told us about them, it sure didn't tell us they won't contend.

"They didn't have a good spring training, either -- but that doesn't mean anything," said an assistant GM. … "Their bullpen has some question marks, but it had some question marks a year ago this time, too," said one scout. "That's an extremely talented team. I think the White Sox are the best team in the American League."

Philadelphia Phillies
The verdict: You never know with this team
Is there a more exasperating team in this whole sport than the Phillies? For years now, they've been teasing the world with their talent -- while they kept finding ways to miss the playoffs. And our panel was as split as ever on them. But here's the ugly lesson of history: In the wild-card era, 13 teams have started a season 1-6 or worse. Only one has made the playoffs -- the 1995 Reds (who won the Central division with 85 victories).

"Strange team," said an NL executive who summed up the Phillies perfectly. "Every time it looks like they take a step forward, they take a step backward. So I don't know what to make of them. … They're not a 70-win team. They could be a 90-win team. Or they could barely play .500. I just know that on paper, they should be better."

Minnesota Twins
The verdict: Better than this, but …
OK, everyone who figured on the Twins being 12th in the AL in ERA (ahead of only the Royals and Rays) after eight games, raise your hands. Thought so. This pitching staff had a bizarre week and a half, but nobody we polled expects that part to continue. Whether the Twins will score enough to hang with the Indians, White Sox and Tigers, however -- that's a question that's harder to answer.

"They're going to have trouble scoring runs again," said one scout who has followed them. "They're in some trouble, based on how they look right now." … "I still think they're a couple of bats short," said one front-office man. "That Cleveland team has passed them by."

Texas Rangers
The verdict: Uh-oh
The Rangers, on the other hand, are the Twins' alter-ego. They scored three runs or fewer in five of their first eight games. And that funk won't last. But (stop us if you've heard this before) "they just don't have enough pitching," said one scout.

"I know this is a broken record," said one GM, "but not enough pitching. If John Koronka and Rick Bauer are in your rotation, you don't have enough pitching." … Another scout conceded that, with "so many injuries," they're tough to get a feel for. But "they're in trouble," he said. "I don't see how they can recover to be a contender. [Time for everyone to join in on the chorus here.] Not enough pitching."

San Diego Padres
The verdict: In trouble
If you missed the Padres' episode of "Extreme Makeover" this winter, here's your rundown: This team made seven trades, two waiver claims, 11 major-league free-agent signings, nine minor-league-contract free-agent signings, one Rule 5 draft pick and one cash deal. So 17 of the 25 players on the roster this Opening Day weren't there last Opening Day. And no one is sure how to assess a team with a 5.71 team ERA and only seven homers by the whole lineup in its first seven games.

The biggest worry, after an opening weekend in which this team gave up 32 runs in three games to Colorado: "I don't think they have enough pitching," said one GM. "Their pitching is already short. What happens if they have a big injury?"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com