Commentary

Was start to the season fact or fiction?

Wondering about struggling Rays, Red Sox and Brewers … red-hot Rangers and Orioles

Originally Published: April 5, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The 2011 baseball season hasn't been in progress much longer than the Charlie Sheen Madness Tour. So it's time to remember what your dad always told you:

Beware of small samples.

Or you can kick around this piece of advice from one of our scout friends:

"I never even look at the standings until June 1."

Well, here at the new, streamlined, 2011 model of Rumblings and Grumblings, we're going to authorize you to look at the standings as often as you like. Just remember that what you see there may tell you less about where this season is heading than those Opening Day wind-chill factors were telling you about where the temperature is heading.

The Diamondbacks started 3-1 last year -- and lost 97 games. The White Sox, Red Sox and Padres started 1-3 -- and finished a combined 48 games over .500.

So with that in mind, here's our first edition of the ever-popular April Guide to Myth or Reality:

Rays (0-3, .132 team batting average, .445 team OPS)

Tampa Bay Rays

Yeah, the season is only three games old, but is it too early to call the Rays a team in crisis? They've scored fewer runs (three) than Jack Hannahan. They've been outhomered (2-1) by Ryan Hanigan. They're off to the worst start in Rays AND Devil Rays history. Johnny Damon is wondering if two days on the new turf was enough to beat up his legs. And now they've lost Evan Longoria for who knows how long. So by the time he returns, could the Rays be buried in the AL East?

"They were on thin ice as is," said one scout. "They were going to have to count on Longoria and [B.J.] Upton to have big years to begin with. Now they've lost their best player, and they're in trouble. They just have no margin for error." The Rays' rotation should still keep them from gurgling too far under. But it's tough to like the look of any other area of the team right now. In fact, one scout predicted bluntly: "I think they're a last-place club." So even though they're not THIS bad, the vote from people we polled is: This 0-3 start might be more reality than myth.

Red Sox (0-3, outscored 26-11, allowed 47 baserunners in 24 innings)

Boston Red Sox

Less that a week ago, we picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. By this weekend, we were ranking them 21st in our vote in the ESPN.com Power Rankings. So that's kind of a rough trend. But even teams this good are allowed to have one series as ugly as the Red Sox's trip to Texas.

What the heck. The 1998 Yankees started 0-3 and won 114 games. The 2004 Red Sox, as you might recall, started the ALCS by going 0-3 and won the World Series. And while it may be a scary little fact that no team has ever won it all after starting 0-4, one scout we checked with said: "If there's a team that could pull it off, it might be them." So there's no reason -- yet -- to get sucked in by that panic around the Hah-buh in Boston. That team that showed up in Texas was not the real Red Sox. Was it?

Rangers (4-0, slugging .722 as a team, outscoring opponents 32-15)

They have six players slugging .875 or better. They hit more home runs in one weekend (11) than their buddies in Houston, the Astros, hit all last April. And it's slightly terrifying to ask what this offense might be capable of when Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre start hitting. But even though the Rangers appear to be the clear early class of the AL West, it's safe to say they're not going to be as omnipotent as they've looked. Sheez, they're on pace to hit more than 500 homers and score nearly 1,300 runs. And that ain't happening.

Texas Rangers

"I like their team, and you've got to like their power, especially in their home park," said one scout. "But it will be interesting to see how their rotation shapes up. I worry they won't get [Brandon] Webb back. So they're not real deep in starting pitching."

In other words, a lot of what we've seen so far was real. But if their rotation (3.28 ERA) has the kind of issues some folks think are lurking in the absence of Webb, Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman (not to mention Cliff Lee), the Rangers' road to October won't be as easy as it looks at the moment.

Brewers (0-4, outscored 22-6 since ninth inning on Opening Day)

At times like this, another scout I know likes to say, "The biggest win of your season is the first win of your season." Well, tell it to the Brewers. On Opening Day, they were three outs away from a neat, clean 6-3 victory in Cincinnati. Then closer John Axford self-destructed. They've been a mess since. And already, the heat seems to be rising on a team that threw all its chips at winning this year.

Milwaukee Brewers

"Needless to say, they're a big disappointment," said one scout. "To start with, their bullpen is a very big question mark. They don't throw strikes. Offensively, they're really missing Corey Hart. And we knew defense would be an issue. They've got a [defensive] liability at first, a liability at second, a liability at third, and the shortstop has problems maintaining concentration. What makes this tough is, they went all in this year. So to lose three straight to their chief competitor in the division [the Reds], that's like a six-game turnaround right out of the chute."

The Brewers should remind themselves that Hart will be back eventually. Zack Greinke will be back. Shaun Marcum should get healthier. And Prince Fielder won't be hitting .231 with zero extra-base hits. But we heard a lot of talk this spring that no team in baseball needed a good start more than the Brewers. So you wonder how they'll handle this. What we've seen so far has a lot of myth to it -- but not as much as you might think.

Orioles (4-0, with a 1.00 team ERA)

Just as we all figured, the best rotation in baseball so far can be found in a ballpark off I-95. Just as almost nobody figured, that ballpark would be Camden Yards, not Citizens Bank Park. Yessir, after four games, the Orioles' starting pitchers (Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, dazzling rookie Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta) have allowed a TOTAL of two runs in 26 innings. And if this keeps up, it'll be a fun summer in Baltimore -- for a change.

Baltimore Orioles

"The [back] injury to [Brian] Matusz was a blessing in disguise," said one scout, "because they brought up Britton, and he's the best pitcher they've got. He's 93-96 [mph] with tremendous sink. He's got a slider to get in on right-handers. And he handled his first game in the big leagues like it was no big deal."

While there's still some skepticism that Tillman and Arrieta are anything more than No. 4 starter types, the same scout quoted earlier thinks the de facto ace, Guthrie, is highly underrated.

"Look at his stuff," the scout said. "Every pitch he throws is a plus pitch. He can go to 94-96 [mph] with his fastball. He's got a plus slider, plus curve and plus change. And he knows how to pitch. I'd take him. In fact, we've tried to get him."

How rare is it to see any team start a season by pitching like this? Well, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that the Orioles are just the fourth team in history, third in the live-ball era and second in AL history (joining the '91 White Sox) to get off to a 4-0 start while allowing no more than one run in all four games.

We'll see what happens when this staff runs into the Rangers next weekend and the Yankees next week. But Buck Showalter and new pitching coach Mark Connor have this group attacking every game with a different sense of urgency and preparation. So how real is this? Just remember that if we'd started keeping the standings 61 games ago, when Showalter took over last Aug. 3, the Orioles (38-23) would be six games ahead of the Yankees and eight ahead of the Red Sox. In other words, there might be more reality to this hot start than much of the outside world suspects.

Ready to rumble

• Is it too early to start thinking ahead to the trade deadline? Of course it is. But it already has the makings, says one NL GM, of "a fascinating deadline. To win the World Series, the Rangers will need to add a top starter. The Yankees will be in that market. And I could see the Red Sox being in that market. You've got a bunch of teams that will need to upgrade their rotation to win. And I don't know how much will be out there."

• An executive of one club that expects to be hunting for a starter says his team has already all but crossed Felix Hernandez off its shopping list because it can't see Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, who may already be on the hot seat, making that risky roll of the dice. "I sincerely doubt it," the exec says. "Enough bad stuff has happened there that they have to show progress in the next year or two. And trading Felix would not help them show it."

• Two early names the same exec nominates as potential pitching targets, just based on the probabilities their teams will be selling by July: Wandy Rodriguez and Mike Pelfrey.

• It wasn't so much the news that the Yankees had a team employee flashing signs from the stands to players that raised eyebrows around the game. It was their defense of that practice as just a one-time thing because the scoreboard radar display was on the fritz. "They've had somebody sitting behind the plate giving signals for the last 10-12-15 years," says one scout. "They've been doing it extensively. So for them to say it was because the radar [board] didn't work, I didn't understand that. I don't see other clubs doing it. And I don't know how valuable it is. But it reminded me of [the Patriots] trying to explain video-gate."

• Only the Mets could look at a blown save by their closer as a good thing. Because Francisco Rodriguez coughed up that save in Florida on Saturday and forced them to win in extra innings, it was one less Game Finished for K-Rod on the uncomfortable trail to the 55 the Mets hope he never reaches, to vest his $17.5 million option for 2012.

• The Twins clearly aren't eager to trade Kevin Slowey because they'd prefer to hang on to their pitching depth and you can never have enough strike-throwers in your bullpen. But scouts following the Twins think that could change, because they believe Slowey is more privately unhappy about getting bounced from the rotation than he has expressed publicly.

• If it's not too late to pick up Nelson Cruz for your fantasy team, what are you waiting for? When Cruz's name came up in a conversation with one scout this week, he used these two words: "All-Star."

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Scott Rovak/US PresswireAlbert Pujols is batting .125 through the first four games of the regular season.

• As long as we're playing word association, a word another scout used to describe Albert Pujols so far is this one: "Anxious." Consider these numbers, courtesy of FanGraphs: In 2004, a year the Cardinals won 105 games, Pujols swung at just 15.7 percent of pitches he saw outside the strike zone. In 2006, the year St. Louis won the World Series, he was up to 19.6 percent. The last two years: 27.5 percent and 26.7 percent, respectively. And you wonder where that number might be heading if Matt Holliday is out longer, following his appendectomy, than he seems to think he'll be.

• It's amazing how many people believe the Astros, despite the promise of their rotation, could be the worst team in baseball. One big reason: They don't catch the ball. "If the center fielder (Michael Bourn) could play seven positions, they'd be all right," quipped one scout.

• Shane Victorino's short-lived calf-injury scare this weekend was a reminder of one of the Phillies' biggest worries: They still have no true backup center fielder if Victorino goes down. Jayson Werth used to serve in that role. Now Charlie Manuel was forced to run John Mayberry Jr. (who played just 15 minor league games in center in six seasons) and Rule 5 utility dervish Michael Martinez (29 games in center in five pro seasons) out there over the weekend.

• Finally, anytime I've ever been around Showalter, his attention to detail has always blown me away. So this story, from Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne, fits right in: On Showalter's first day on the job last August, Thorne did a pregame interview with him in the manager's office and picked out a spot in front of a photo of Camden Yards that had hung in that office for years. But Showalter immediately told him, "It won't be hanging there tomorrow." And why was that, Thorne asked? "Have you looked at it?" Showalter told him. "The Orioles are playing at Camden Yards. And the opponent's got the bases loaded." So what was hanging in that spot the next day? A board listing organizational depth charts. What else?

Five astounding facts from the week

1) So you think it's a good thing to kick off a season with back-to-back homers? Guess again. The Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent, reports that when Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez did that last Thursday, the Brewers became the second team ever to do that, joining the 1969 Reds. And what happened to both those teams? They lost that day.

2) Another one from the Sultan: When Joey Votto homered in that opener, it marked the eighth straight year that a reigning MVP has hit a home run on Opening Day. The others: Barry Bonds (2004), Vladimir Guerrero ('05), Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols ('06), Justin Morneau ('07), Jimmy Rollins ('08), Dustin Pedroia ('09) and Pujols ('10).

3) Tim Wakefield is 44 years old. He's in his 19th season in the big leagues. But when he pitched in relief Opening Day, it was the first time he'd pitched in any opener since he started for the Pirates in 1993. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 18 years between Opening Day appearances is the longest by any player since 1900.

4) The Pirates finished last season by winning four of their last 29 road games. They've started this season by winning three of their first four road games.

5) Only three Blue Jays have ever thrown at least seven one-hit innings in the first win of their careers. One was Casey Janssen in 2006. The other two were traded FOR EACH OTHER -- Kyle Drabek on Saturday and someone named Roy Halladay on Sept. 27, 1998.

Tweet of the week

We may not know what the real Barry Bonds thinks of his perjury trial. But thanks to Twitter, we know what @FakeBarryBonds is thinking. The bogus Barry has been tweeting away since court opened for session. And he had this observation last week about his least favorite Giambi brother:

"This trial is officially longer than Jeremy Giambi's career …"

Headliner of the week

This just in from the goofy Chicago parody site, theheckler.com:

Peavy Determined To Pass Mark Prior
As MLB's All-Time Leader In Simulated Game Wins

Late nighter of the week

And, finally, David Letterman had this to report on Opening Day in New York:

"It was so cold today at Yankee Stadium for the home opener … Cameron Diaz was feeding Alex Rodriguez soup."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com