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Best and worst surprise teams so far

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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DENVER

Three months ago, the No. 1 topic of conversation regarding the San Francisco Giants was whether manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean could survive with new ownership and an expected struggle on the field. Now, look at them. With the All-Star break looming, Sabean and Bochy are looking at moves that could help the Giants in their second-half postseason bid. They are overseeing a team that is sitting in second place in the NL West, and leading the NL wild-card race. Chalk up the Giants as the most pleasant surprise of the first-half. At the other extreme is another NL West team, Arizona.

First-half pleasant surprises

GIANTS: Bochy is a master handler of pitchers, and it is paying off this year. While the Giants offense ranks 30th in baseball with a .312 on-base percentage, and 12th in the NL with 345 runs scored, the Giants are well-armed for their postseason bid. They have the lowest overall earned-run average in baseball -- 3.49. The rotation also ranks No. 1 with a 3.56 ERA and is tied for the major-league lead with 36 wins. The bullpen ERA of 3.32 ranks second in the NL to the Dodgers. Bochy, however will be tested severely in the second half. He can only hope that the loss of Randy Johnson to the disabled list is minimal. Johnson may be 45, and may not be the intimidator of his earlier days, but he provides a solid No. 3 in a rotation led by All-Stars Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. The three have combined for a 27-10 record. TEXAS RANGERS: They enter the weekend fresh off taking two out of three from the Angels -- giving them a 6-2 edge on the divisional rival -- and regaining the AL West lead. Long noted for its offensive efforts, Texas has benefited from a bullpen that has allowed the Rangers to win 37 of 38 games in which it had a lead entering the seventh. And the defense has benefited from the decision to move Michael Young to third base, opening a spot for rookie shortstop Elvin Andrus. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: Albert Pujols is the main attraction with St. Louis, and rightfully so. He is the Cardinals' offense. He's the only .300 hitter (.331), and not only leads the team with 31 home runs, 72 runs batted in and a .469 on-base percentage, but it isn't even close. Ryan Ludwick is second in home runs (12) and RBI (44), and Skip Schumaker ranks behind Pujols with a .368 on-base percentage.
St. Louis' surprising run to the top of the NL Central, however, has been built off the unexpected emergence of Ryan Franklin as a dominant closer (20-for-21 in saves and a 0.83 ERA) after the failure of prospects to take the step up to the big leagues, and the recovery of oft-injured Chris Carpenter (6-3, 2.37 in 12 starts). SEATTLE MARINERS: The Mariners are coming off their first 100-loss season since 1983. They revamped their management team, bringing in Jack Zduriencik as the new general manager and Don Wakamatsu as the new manager. Both are first-timers, but they appear to have adapted quickly. There aren't postseason expectations, but the Mariners have shown a resiliency and been able to stay above .500 thanks in no small part to the confidence Wakamatsu found in journeyman David Aardsma, who has become a dependable closer. COLORADO ROCKIES: Expected to be a contender when the season started, the Rockies stumbled for two months, falling 15 games below .500 at one point. Jim Tracy, however, replaced Clint Hurdle as manager at the end of May and the change of voice in leadership did the trick. The Rockies ran off a 17-1 stretch and won 27 of first 38 games under Tracy. They won a club-record 21 games in June, including 19 wins for the rotation -- a first for an NL rotation since the 1985 Mets. Tracy did make Clint Barmes his second baseman, and put promising Ian Stewart at third in place of sluggish Garrett Atkins.

Most disappointing surprises

CLEVELAND INDIANS: With the addition of Mark DeRosa and signing of free- agent closer Kerry Wood, the Indians were the self-proclaimed team to beat in the AL Central. Instead they have been the team most easily beaten in the AL Central. They already have used 25 pitchers, including 10 starters in a rotation that is a combined 21-35 with a 5.50 ERA. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: To hear the Diamondbacks front office and ownership tell the story, this is a team that is on the cutting edge of excellence. To look at the standings, it's a team that two years after winning the NL West with a roster built around what Arizona officials proclaimed the game's strongest young nucleus is battling to stay out of last place. The most bizarre of bizarre moments was the May firing of manager Bob Melvin and replacing him with farm director A.J. Hinch, who had never coached or managed a game at any level. CHICAGO CUBS: Instead of looking at last year's division title as a sign of good things to come, the Cubs got caught up in reworking the roster in the offseason, and got rid of two of the strongest clubhouse guys in the game, infielder Mark DeRosa and right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis. Manager Lou Piniella lobbied for Milton Bradley, and he got him. Bradley doesn't play well in big-market spotlights. Disappointment? A roster that has seven All-Stars from a year ago has only one this year -- mandatory pick Ted Lilly. NEW YORK METS: General manager Omar Minaya keeps spending money trying to patch holes, and then new holes crop up. J.J. Putz, acquired to set up free-agent addition Francisco Rodriguez, has been sidelined with injuries. And the offense has been stripped with injuries to Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. OAKLAND A'S: General manager Billy Beane gets a pass most times for strange thinking because he usually turns out to be right. This year, however, Beane swung and missed. Looking to provide support for a young pitching staff, he spent money to bring in fading veterans Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciappara, and then overpaid to acquire Matt Holliday from Colorado. None of the four is having even a normal year, much less providing offensive leadership.
Tagged: Chris Carpenter, David Aardsma, Albert Pujols, Milton Bradley, Clint Barmes, Francisco Rodriguez, J.J. Putz, Kerry Wood, Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker, Jason Marquis, Angels, Indians, Cubs, Jose Reyes, Mets, Athletics, Mariners, Cardinals, Rangers, Tim Lincecum, Giants, Rockies, Ryan Ludwick, Diamondbacks, Mark DeRosa, Jason Giambi, Matt Cain, Orlando Cabrera, Carlos Beltran, Michael Young, Ian Stewart, Ryan Franklin

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