Surveying the landscape
Baseball's three best divisions -- the AL East, AL West and NL Central -- have had a few surprises thus far.
Hard as it might be to believe, the season is already about one-eighth over, with most teams at or approaching the 20-game level. By early May -- just around the corner -- one-sixth of the schedule will have been chewed up.
That's enough of a statistical sample to make some early observations on a few division races, a task made easier by the fact that Major League Baseball's schedule-makers fill April with plenty of intra-division games.
In fact, through Monday, eight American League teams had yet to play an opponent outside of their own division. Another handful of NL teams only crossed out of their own divisions Monday night.
That head-to-head play has revealed more about some contenders and pretenders. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule -- designed to enhance rivalries -- teams play nearly half of their games within their own divisions, giving an added significance to those intra-division games.
A look at what we've learned, so far, from three divisions which were supposed to be dominated by two teams:
What we knew: The Yankees and Red Sox would take their ongoing Holy War late into September to decide a division which has seen the Yankees finish in first place and the Red Sox in second place in each of the last six seasons.
Season series to date: Boston, 6-1.
What we've learned: Boston's pitching is immeasurably improved. While Curt Schilling has boosted the rotation, it's been the addition of Keith Foulke which has resulted in the biggest upgrade. For the first time in the recent history of the rivalry, the Sox now have a closer to match against Mariano Rivera.
The Sox haven't hit -- they went an amazing 0-for-19 with runners in scoring position last Saturday, yet still won; they stranded 13 baserunners in a game last week in Toronto -- but that was to be expected a bit with the absence of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon.
The mere fact that the Sox are thriving because of pitching is a positive sign for them, since, eventually, Garciaparra and Nixon will return and give the lineup what Terry Francona calls "thickness.''
As for the Yankees, their collective .210 batting average shouldn't be too alarming. Unless everything we know about baseball is wrong, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield et al will hit -- sooner rather than later.
But of more immediate concern is the pitching -- or lack thereof. It wasn't a good sign for the Yankees that their options for Sunday's series finale were: rookie Alex Graman, Donovan Osborne (who hasn't started in the big leagues since 1999) or Javier Vazquez on three days' rest.
Vazquez actually pitched superbly, with one hanging curveball to Manny Ramirez his lone mistake over six innings. But in the longer view, the continuing troubles of Jose Contreras and the absence of a legitimate No. 5 man have to be alarming.
Unlike past seasons, when the Yankees had pitching to spare, there's little margin for error this season. It's not even May 1, and already, speculation has begun about what starter the Yanks should obtain in a deal.
Who's become a factor: Baltimore.
The Orioles are much deeper offensively -- which we expected -- but they're also strong in the bullpen -- which we didn't.
Rookie manager Lee Mazzilli has done a nice job mixing and matching his power relief arms, who've compiled a bullpen ERA of 2.67, the second-lowest in the American League.
They've yet to get a whole lot out of Miguel Tejada (six extra-base hits), which will come. But so, too, will some sore arms in the bullpen if the O's don't regularly have their starters go deeper into games.
What we knew: Oakland has been to the postseason four straight times while the Angels won the World Series in 2002. While the A's small budget cost them two central figures (Tejada and Foulke), their pitching would hold them in good stead. As for the Angels, their offseason shopping spree brought them Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen and Bartolo Colon. That infusion, coupled with a return to good health for Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad was expected to make the Angels a factor again.
Season series to date: Anaheim, 4-2.
What we've learned: The A's are 10th in the league in hitting (.258 batting average), but that's not unexpected. Even with Tejada a year ago, Oakland didn't hit much, and certainly not in the early months of the season. Of their 20 homers as a team, seven have been hit by Jermaine Dye, who has clearly -- and finally -- rebounded fully from a broken left leg. That bodes well for the middle of the lineup, which needed production beyond Eric Chavez.
The A's have had superb starting pitching -- second in ERA (3.58) in the AL -- to stay afloat in the first few weeks, though Barry Zito is off to a slow start.
As for the Angels, their starting pitching beyond Colon has been poor, though Ramon Ortiz showed signs he may have turned a corner Sunday against Oakland.
Francisco Rodriguez looks to be as dominant as he was in the Angels' magical postseason ride of 2002 (nine games, no earned runs allowed, 18 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings), which is more vital than ever with Brendan Donnelly out.
Who's become a factor: Texas.
The Rangers lead the league in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage and are among the league leaders in runs scored, doubles and homers -- which isn't surprising.
They're also fifth in the AL in pitching (4.34 team ERA) -- which ranks as one of the biggest surprises in the early going.
It's doubtful they can hang around all season in this competitive division, but through the first month, they've given the Angels and A's something to think about -- and that something isn't the Seattle Mariners.
What we knew: The Cubs and Astros have the two best starting staffs in the National League -- arguably the two best in the game. Bullpens were thought to be more of a concern for each team, after the Astros traded Billy Wagner -- in part to clear salary space for free agent Andy Pettitte, while the Cubs attempted to strengthen their relief staffs to help support closer Joe Borowski.
Season series to date: Have yet to play head-to-head.
What we've learned: Both clubs have lost important starters to injury in the first month. Pettitte has an elbow strain and is expected to return Thursday after some rehab work, while Mark Prior remains in extended spring, attempting to overcome elbow problems and an Achilles tendon flareup.
Houston's front-line pitching, led by the indominable Roger Clemens (4-0) has held up well, though the starters that Jimy Williams have plugged in -- Brandon Duckworth, Jared Fernandez -- in Pettitte's absence have stumbled. Most gratifying for the Astros has been the pitching of Roy Oswalt, who appears fully recovered from last season's groin troubles.
The Cubs, too, have survived the first month without Prior, thanks to Kerry Wood. Greg Maddux, who was racked early, has settled down and his start against the Mets last week was vintage stuff. It's scary to consider how good this staff can be when Prior rejoins it.
From an offensive standpoint, the Cubs are second in the major leagues in homers (34). Aramis Ramirez has been their best hitter, and Corey Patterson has returned from an injury-shortened 2003. Sammy Sosa is also just showing signs of heating up.
Who's become a factor: Cincinnati.
It's tempting to suggest that the Reds have built their surprising start on the backs of an easy schedule, taking advantage of a cold Phillies team and plenty of early games with the Pirates. But they've held their own against the Braves and Cubs (5-5 combined against the two).
The Reds were thought to have the poorest rotation in the league, but they've been better than expected. It will be interested to see how the lineup weathers the loss of Austin Kearns, who broke his left forearm after being hit by a pitch on Monday.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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