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April disappointments aren't done yet
April baseball seems made for strange happenings.
Indeed, the small sample size can wreak havoc upon sensible expectations. Thus far, the 2011 season has been no exception.
At the team level, the most notable examples of this phenomenon are the slow starts of the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays and the hot starts of the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. After the surprise wears off, you’re left wondering: Does it mean anything? In the case of all four teams, the answer is a resounding, probably not.
First, we have the underachievers. Boston, despite a headline-grabbing offseason and expectations of a pennant, bumbled its way to an 0-6 start and, at one point, was 2-10. At that juncture, the doomsaying wasn’t hard to come by.
Now, however, Boston is steadily trending upward. The Red Sox recently achieved a road sweep of the Angels, and soon enough they’ll reach the .500 mark for the first time in 2011. Beyond that, the Red Sox will absolutely be in the thick of the American League East race.
Still, it’s possible the Red Sox suffered from some irrational exuberance heading into the 2011 campaign. After all, the Sox lost Adrian Beltre (a certifiable MVP candidate last season and a lavishly accomplished fielder) and Victor Martinez off a team that missed the playoffs in 2010. Yes, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are new to the fold, and they will certainly help the cause. Production from catcher and, to a lesser extent, center field, however, will remain concerns.
On the whole, though, the Sox remain the best team in the AL in a vacuum, and the team’s level of performance is gradually rising to meet those expectations. It’s the AL East, so nothing is guaranteed. But the Red Sox, at worst, will be within hailing distance of the division lead for the rest of the season.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, struggled just as badly in the season’s earliest days. However, the Devil Rays' 1-8 start has evolved into a .500 record and second-place status. Considering they’ve been without their best player (Evan Longoria) until very recently and considering that no one outside of Sam Fuld has been hitting, the slow start isn’t surprising. Strong pitching, though, has allowed Tampa Bay to control the damage.
Although the offense figures to improve, what of the bullpen? The Rays currently rank third in the AL in relief ERA, and that’s despite the loss of almost every effective reliever from 2010. So, can the likes of Kyle Farnsworth (1.23 ERA), Joel Peralta and Andy Sonnanstine keep it up? Probably not at this level.
Overall, expect the Tampa offense to improve, the bullpen to regress and the rotation — as a unit — to maintain its current level of performance. That means the Rays, while not the favorites to prevail (you don’t lose the likes of Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza and almost the entire bullpen and earn favorite status in the AL East), will remain in contention. Slow start notwithstanding.
Perhaps more surprising is what’s unfolded in the AL Central. Poll anyone not over-invested in the outcome, and he or she would likely have said that any team but the Indians or Royals have tenable designs on the flag. Yet there they are.
Coming into 2011, the Royals, sans Zack Greinke, were a popular pick for worst team in baseball. Despite the grim forecasts, the Royals barged to a 10-4 start. The shine has come off in the days since then, but at this writing, KC clings to a winning record. So can a team that lost 95 games a year ago and shed its ace over the winter possibly aspire to relevance? It’s doubtful.
The Royals have survived by virtue of a strong offense. More specifically, they've survived by virtue of five hitters: Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit and Melky Cabrera. Of those hitters, only Gordon and Butler have the underlying skills to maintain their numbers. Sure, hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has earned praise for his ability to reconstruct swings, but until further notice, the safe assumption is that Francoeur, Betemit and Cabrera will remain . . . Francoeur, Betemit and Cabrera.
As for the pitching, it has been awful to date and figures to remain as such. The Royals have the best farm system in all of baseball and will soon be a contending team. But it won’t happen in 2011.
And what of the first-place Indians? Of these four surprising teams, the Tribe has the best chance to defy preseason expectations. The AL Central, while balanced, lacks a truly great team. The Tigers have a number of flaws, the White Sox are scuffling and the Twins are injured and thin. That’s where Cleveland comes in.
The Indians have backed up their strong record with an equally strong run differential. On offense, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner appear to be undergoing dueling renaissances, and Shin-Soo Choo (according to this space, the most underrated player in baseball) and Carlos Santana aren’t yet hitting. But they will.
On the pitching front, the Indians will need for Justin Masterson to continue making strides and for Fausto Carmona to pitch as he did last season. Behind those two are uncertainties and unknown quantities. The bullpen is solid, especially given the emergence of Chris Perez, but the rotation will be problematic.
That said, the offense is good enough and everything else is adequate enough to give the Indians a puncher’s chance in this winnable division. Are they the favorites? Of course not, but they’re shaping up to be a better team than most of us anticipated.
Certainly, April games count as much in the standings as their more famous September brethren, but as the season deepens and the sample size grows, we’ll soon forget the early fates and fortunes of the Red Sox, Rays and Royals. The Indians? That question can’t yet be answered, which in and of itself is something worth noting.