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Beware of early-season fool's gold

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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There’s a saying in baseball that goes something like this: “Bad teams are dangerous early, because they don’t know they’re bad yet.”

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It’s true: Lesser clubs often play with more energy in the first few months, then succumb to their inadequacies and start trading off veteran parts.

Sometimes, though, a bad team isn’t so bad. Sometimes, a bad team becomes a surprise team, just as the Padres did last season.

I wrote last week about the Orioles. I wrote in the spring about the Nationals. Here are six other clubs that played above their modest expectations in the first 10 days of the season — and guesstimates about their chances for 2011.

Marlins

Perhaps they don’t belong on this list, seeing as how their owner, Jeffrey Loria, said at the outset of spring training, “I’ll match my guys up with anybody.”

Still, few expect the Fish to seriously compete with the Phillies and Braves in the NL East. The Marlins’ first test will be this week, when they visit Atlanta and Philadelphia after building their 5-4 record against the less-potent Mets, Nationals and Astros.

The good news for the Marlins is they’ve gotten minimal contributions from shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who is batting .207 and missed the past two games with a left leg bruise, and right fielder Mike Stanton, who is just now recovering from a left hamstring issue.

Third base remains a question, but so far the combination of Donnie Murphy, Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms is proving oddly sufficient. Closer Leo Nunez is another question — “they can’t win with him at the back,” one scout says — but Nunez has developed a slider and is 3 for 3 in save chances thus far.

The intriguing thing about the Marlins is that Ramirez seems serious about becoming a leader, even asking manager Edwin Rodriguez his opinion on what to say to his teammates and how to handle certain situations. The clubhouse environment, at least thus far, is much improved.

Contender or pretender? Contender, in their usual 80- to 85-win way.

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Indians

This could get interesting. The Indians allowed 23 runs in their first two games, losses to the White Sox. Since then, they have given up 14 runs in seven games — all victories.

Dismiss the weekend sweep against the hapless Mariners if you’d like, but remember that the Tribe swept the Red Sox at home in the previous series. Remember, as well, that the pitching staff was fourth in the AL with a 3.86 ERA after the All-Star break last season and produced the highest groundball percentage in the AL.

The Indians’ season likely will hinge on whether their pitching stays consistent, and the team’s improved infield defense should help. The lineup also could evolve nicely: Designated hitter Travis Hafner looks like his old self, center fielder Grady Sizemore figures to return by the end of the month and Triple-A third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall eventually could make an impact.

To contend, the Indians will need young players such as right-hander Carlos Carrasco, first baseman Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley to produce at a high level. It’s a lot to ask; the team’s margin for error is thin. Then again, the AL Central is more forgiving than most divisions.

Contender or pretender? Pretender, but better than most of us thought.

Blue Jays

A difficult team to assess; the Jays are so young, they could go either way.

Still, the Jays went from 75 wins in 2009 to 85 in ’10 after losing right-hander Roy Halladay, shortstop Marco Scutaro and catcher Rod Barajas. They will not necessarily collapse after losing outfielder Vernon Wells, first baseman Lyle Overbay, catcher John Buck, right-hander Shaun Marcum and relievers Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs.

A 5-4 record against the Twins, A’s and Angels suggests the Jays will at least be competitive — if the young rotation continues to develop, if first baseman Adam Lind and second baseman Aaron Hill bounce back, if a number of other things go right. Good luck to the revamped bullpen maintaining its league-leading 1.11 ERA.

Contender or pretender? Pretender, but worth monitoring.

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Diamondbacks

Winning a home series against the Reds should get people’s attention. The D-Backs looked awful at times in spring training and still might turn out that way. But they rallied from deficits of 5-0 and 7-6 to beat the Reds in the series finale Sunday. And starting with their extra-inning victory over the Rockies on Opening Day, the D-Backs have been competitive in virtually every game.

“The guys are battling,” general manager Kevin Towers says. “It’s a different culture than what I saw the last 10 days of last year (after taking over as GM). We would get down 4-0 or 5-0 and roll over. Even the games in Chicago (where the D-Backs lost two of three), we got down, and battled back, battled back.”

Most interesting fact about the D-Backs: They lead the NL in stolen bases (12 in 15 attempts) and are tied for second in fewest stolen bases allowed (four in six attempts). Manager Kirk Gibson drilled the team relentlessly in spring training, and so far the work is producing results.

It’s difficult to trust the D-Backs’ pitching, but right-handers Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson already have combined for four quality starts and the bullpen seems to be taking shape — David Hernandez in the seventh, Juan Gutierrez or Aaron Heilman in the eighth, J.J. Putz in the ninth.

Contender or pretender? Pretender. But give Towers time.

Pirates

A rival GM summed up the Pirates’ managerial change thusly: “(John) Russell never looked happy. (Clint) Hurdle never looks mad.”

The difference is huge for this downtrodden franchise, but the surprising thing about the Pirates is that they ranked second in the NL in rotation ERA before righty James McDonald allowed five runs in 6-2/3 innings against the Rockies on Sunday.

The rotation cannot sustain that level of success, but righty Kevin Correia and lefty Paul Maholm could be solid, righty Charlie Morton looks poised for a breakout and prospects are developing at every level. The Pirates will need luck and more time to develop a dominant staff, but at least now they stand a chance.

Meanwhile, most clubs would take the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen, righties Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan, and their nucleus of young position players — center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata.

One rival GM describes Walker as a future batting champion. The Pirates told Tabata to stop worrying about his power, pointing out that Roberto Clemente did not reach double digits in power until his sixth full season. Be a great hitter, club officials advised, and the power will come.

Pretender or contender? Pretender, but one scout says, “They’re at least 10 games better than they were last year, maybe a little more.” The team won only 57 games last season, so even a 10-game improvement would not get them to 70. But it would amount to progress.

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Royals

The Royals were 6-2 in 2008 and 18-11 in ’09, so they’re not about to get carried away with their 6-3 start.

The Royals’ best days lie ahead, when third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer take over the infield corners and the arrival of pitching prospects such as left-hander Mike Montgomery ensure that the rotation no longer is a collection of fourth and fifth starters.

Still, there are some good things happening — notably, the development of left fielder Alex Gordon, whom the Royals always envisioned teaming with first baseman Billy Butler to form their offensive nucleus. Gordon, more erect in his stance, showing more hand speed, again looks like he can be a high-OBP, high-strikeout, 20- to 25-homer man.

Several of the Royals’ better prospects are still two years away, and some are certain to sputter. For now, the most noticeable difference in the club is its up-the-middle defense with second baseman Chris Getz and shortstop Alcides Escobar.

Outfielder Melky Cabrera is playing with a high level of professionalism, and the bullpen looks good. One scout says of right-hander Aaron Crow, “He’s a keeper. His fastball hits 94 with great life, and he’s got a power slider.”

Pretender or contender? Contender . . . in 2013.

More exclusive analysis from Ken Rosenthal on baseball's first 11 days.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, Royals, Brewers, Yankees, Mariners, Blue Jays, Braves, Reds, Dodgers, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Derek Jeter, Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells, Jack Wilson, Rod Barajas, Carl Crawford, John Buck, Aaron Heilman, Kevin Correia, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Hill, Russell Martin, Dustin Pedroia, Nick Markakis, Andre Ethier, Ian Kennedy, Giancarlo Stanton, Pedro Alvarez, Drew Stubbs

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