One Month Down, Five to Go: 10 April Surprises from Around Major League Baseball

Will NortonCorrespondent IMay 6, 2008

Well, we’re into May and the Major League Baseball season is a little over 1 month old.  

In the 6 month, 162 game marathon that is the MLB season, nothing we know up to this point can be taken as gospel. For instance, is Tampa Bay going to finish above the Yankees in the AL East standings? Probably not. Is Josh Hamilton going to drive in 190 runs? Most definitely not.  

But that is what’s so fun about projecting and forecasting with such a small sample size: anything is possible.  

With that, I give you my Top 10 surprises of the young, yet exciting, 2008 MLB season: 

1. The Bay Side teams aren’t playing nearly as bad as I thought:  

I asked a friend before the season, “Hey, do you think you could take the rosters of Oakland and S.F. and make a competitive team out of their combined personnel?”. He laughed. Then he thought about it for a minute. Then he answered “No, absolutely not” with a serious look on his face.  

And, honestly, their rosters, in terms of personnel, still aren’t pretty to look at. But winning is all that really matters, and both Oakland and San Francisco have far surpassed this guy’s pre-season expectations.  

Oakland is 20-14 and 1GB of division leading Los Angeles, while San Fran is 14-18, a clear 2 games better than last year’s National League Champion Colorado Rockies.  

A cumulative 34-32? Not bad at all, considering what they’ve got to work with.

2. Cliff Lee and Ervin Santana have been legitimate staff aces: 

Both Lee and Santana came to The Show with a fair amount of hype. Both enjoyed early success, with Lee notching 46 wins between 2004-2006, and Santana registering a 16 win season in 2006.  

But both guys had horrendous 2007 campaigns, landing in AAA at separate times and entering ’08 with decreased expectations.  

But here we are, on May 6th, and they are a combined 11-0 and both rank in the top 5 American League ERA leaders.  

After watching them both throw recently, it’s the improvement of control and command that has reversed the fortunes of these young guns.

Both Santana and Lee have dynamite “stuff”, but if you can’t locate in the majors, you are going to get hit. Improved control and trust of their secondary pitches has really been the difference between 2007 and 2008 for these two.

Case and point: in nearly 90 combined innings, these two have issued just 11 walks. That will go a long way in improving the always overrated W-L record.  

3. Tampa Bay is 13-10 against AL East opponents:  

Wow. I didn’t really realize this until just now looking it up.  

Long time whipping boys of their division, Tampa Bay has more then held its own this year. While many estimated that Tampa would make strides offensively with Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, and Carlos Pena entrenched in the lineup, few could have predicted just how reliable Tampa Bay’s pitching has been. 

Despite injuries to front line starters Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza, the Rays pitching is undoubtedly the reason for their early season success. James Shields has anchored the staff, while former 1stRounder Andy Sonnanstine has emerged of late with three straight quality starts. As a staff, the Rays’ arms rank 2nd in the AL in ERA, WHIP, and BAA.  

What’s more, long time stopper Troy Percival (39 years young) has been lights out at the end of games, free-agent acquisition (2007) Dan Wheeler has been a dependable set-up man, and Tampa Bay is no longer finding ways to lose games in the late innings. This improved pitching should only get better with staff ace Kazmir back in the mix. 

4. Nate McLouth has almost twice as many home runs as Alex Rodriguez.  

Ok, so A-Rod has endured some quad problems, but he wasn’t exactly mashing before the injury either.  

McLouth- the blond-haired spark plug at the top of Pittsburgh’s lineup- has been a very pleasant surprise for Pirates fans thus far. With 7 long balls, 3 steals (he’s faster than that), and a batting average in the .320s, McLouth has virtually carried the Pirates on his back through the month of April.  

McLouth is on pace for 36HR and 130RBI, and while I don’t think there is ANY way he’ll reach those A-Rod like projections, I do think that he’s in for a career year, something along the lines of 25HR and 35SB.  

Something tells me A-Rod will out-produce the little guy in the long run, but for now anyway McLouth has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2008 season.  

5. The White Sox are much better than most thought they’d be. 

While everyone was busy hyping the Tigers and Indians this spring, I think some people over-looked the 2005 World Series Champs.  

After their long-awaited title in ‘05, GM Kenny Williams and the South Siders have endured two painfully bad seasons, culminating in last year’s pillow fight with Kansas City for last place in the division on the final weekend of the season.  

So in the off-season, Williams made some big moves: He signed OF Nick Swisher for his attitude and on base percentage; signed RP Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink to solidify the atrocious bullpen of’07; off-loaded SP Jon Garland for SS Orlando Cabrera to improve defensively; pried once top-shelf outfield prospect Carlos Quentin from Arizona, and kept his other major pieces intact.  

As we stand right now, the White Sox are mired in a 6 game losing streak, yet still sit at 14-16 and 2 games back in the AL Central.

Much of this has to do with the emergence of their #4 and #5 starters, John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Both have flirted with no-hitters and have been surprisingly dominant at times. Falling in line behind Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez, these two have made a once shaky White Sox rotation quite formidable.  

Although the bats have been the cause of several low-scoring losses, their lineup should come around with the warm weather. Look out for this experienced squad that follows their brash GM and manager: the more they win, the more confident and productive they will become.  

6. The Yankees highly touted young guns- Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy- have greatly disappointed

For years, the Yankees relied on their monstrous payroll when it came to building a pitching staff. We all remember the signings of Kevin Brown, Javy Vazquez, and the infamous Carl Pavano.  How’d those work out again?Many of these financial gambles crippled the Yankees fiscally while simultaneously hurting the club on the field. Whether or not the New York pressure was simply too much for these talented arms is hard to measure, but what we do know is that a small percentage of these lucrative free-agent signings led to success on the field. Conversely, they hand-cuffed manager Joe Torre and minimized the amount of cost-effective roster space being used.But GM Brian Cashman vowed to change. Realizing that the rival Red Sox, among other teams, were developing young talent to mesh with their sizable payroll, Cashman started off-loading some of his disgruntled veterans, many of whom were making in excess of $10 million per year. He put more of an emphasis on development and trading for prospects, and this was the year it was supposed to pay off. Well, Brian…maybe next year?We all know what Joba Chamberlain has done out of the bullpen for New York, but righties Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were supposed to inject youth and stability to an aging Yankee rotation. Filling in behind veterans Wang, Pettitte, and Mussina, these two heralded youngsters came into 2008 with big expectations. Simply put, they aren’t ready. Not yet. Phil Hughes- probably the more touted of the two- went 0-4 with an ERA over 9.00 in 6 starts before being placed on the DL with a mysterious broken rib injury. Unable to locate his fastball, which was a definitive strength in the minor leagues, Hughes struggled mightily and is now out until July.Meanwhile, Kennedy didn’t fare much better. In 5 starts, the righty with the smooth delivery went 0-2 with an almost frighteningly similar ERA (8.37) and struggled with his secondary pitches. Kennedy won’t blow you away with his velocity, but he can combine pin-point location and arm angle deception to be effective. For now, however, it appears these intangibles need some fine-tuning in AAA. So that is a combined 0-6 in 11 starts from the kids who were supposed to signal the rebirth of developmental success for the Yanks. These two will be heard from down the road, believe me, and it’s important to note that Hughes was the second youngest player pitching in the bigs (20 years old), while Kennedy is still just 24. But Cashman and Yankee fans expected success and growth this year, and that just might not be in the cards. A surprise indeed.

7. Long time stars in the outfield, Carlos Beltran and Vladimir Guerrero are looking old in ‘08

For almost a decade now, there are certain players you just know will produce. Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols…the list goes on. Vlad Guerrero and Carlos Beltran have long been a part of that list of annual all-star performers. The statistics (3-year averages) speak for themselves: Guerrero (.325avg, 31HR, 116RBI, 92R, 10SB) and Beltran (.271avg, 30HR, 102RBI, 101R, 19SB) have been perennial studs.But early on in 2008, these two have begun to show some of the rust and wear and tear that comes along with aging in professional baseball. Beltran has dealt with troubling knee issues for several years now, while Guerrero has always had chronic back problems, and it appears as if these red crosses are starting to affect the production of these two Dominican power threats. Beltran- a career .280 hitter- is down at .221 with just 2HR and 13RBI. That is not what you’d expect from a long-time productive cleanup hitter in the middle of the fearsome Mets lineup.Guerrero- a career .323 hitter- is down at .256 with only 3HR and 14RBI to show for himself. While Guerrero’s power stats have declined just slightly over the last 3 or 4 years, his average and RBI output have not. So this sudden drop-off is troubling to say the least. Baseball is a marathon, and these guys still have plenty of time to right themselves, regress back towards the mean statistically, and boast impressive totals come years end. But to this writer, this is the beginning of the end. These two have logged significant mileage on their  bodies over the years and it’s starting to hamper their all-star caliber abilities. It may come as a surprise, but I wouldn’t expect normal production lines from these two moving forward.

8. St. Louis is sitting atop the NL Central.

Coming in to the year, most thought it would be the Cubs and Brewers battling for NL Central supremacy. Although the Cardinals won it all in 2006 despite winning just 83 games, they regressed as a unit last year and didn’t seem to make any significant additions that would warrant great expectations in ’08. What’s more, Albert Pujols complained of elbow issues in spring training, saying if the pain he experience in ’07 re-surfaced, he would not delay surgery and would shut it down for the season. Couple that with the fact that Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder- once thought to be the 1-2 punch atop the Cards’ rotation- both entered the year on the 60-day DL, and it simply looked like LaRussa’s run was over in the ‘Lou. But things don’t always unfold like they should. The Cardinals enter May 6th with a 21-12 record and a 2.5 game lead on the Cubs in the division. They are getting steady production out of Pujols, their somewhat make-shift rotation has been reliable and consistent, and some of their “unknowns” are chipping in. One such unknown is Skip Schumaker. This spark plug has been a key cog in the Cardinals lineup, hitting around .300 and scoring runs at a record clip. He has provided a lot of intangible strengths to this fundamentally sound ball club and perhaps best epitomizes the over-achievment St. Louis has enjoyed thus far. In the long run, it’s hard to see the Cardinals out-lasting the talent on Chicago and Milwaukee’s respective rosters. The Cubs have hardly gotten anything out of Alfonso Soriano to this point, while the Brewers have dealt with a rash of injuries. In other words; those two teams are going to play better.I fully expect St. Louis to slow down, but this fast start has injected confidence into this group of grinders, and LaRussa is one of the all-time greats at getting a lot out of a little.  We’ll see if their surprise start can last into the dog days of summer.

9. Kosuke Fukudome has transformed the Cubs offense and made a name for himself all in just one month.

You never know what you’re going to get from Japanese imports.Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Kaz Matsui; all Japanese imports who were touted as legitimate stars at their position. And all have experienced varied levels of success in America. Fukudome came to the Cubs advertised as a cross between Ichiro and H.Matsui: a good spray hitter with excellent contact skills, marginal speed, and a powerful, accurate arm in right. I thought: this kid will be a nice fit for a sometimes undisciplined Cubs team, but it’ll probably take him a year or two to settle in.Boy was I wrong.Derrek Lee’s absolutely scalding start aside, Fukudome has probably been the Cubs’ best hitter. Through April, Fukudome was batting .327 with a .436 on-base percentage. What’s more, he was hitting at a .370 clip with men in scoring position and saw the second most pitches per plate appearance in the entire majors. He hit in four different lineup spots, played an excellent right field at Wrigley, and won over the die-hards at The Friendly Confines, all in one month’s work!”This guy has truly been a surprise. Perhaps the best barometer of how essential Fukudome has been to the Cubs? The fact that their entire offense- with the exception of Soriano- has started to adopt a more patient and disciplined approach at the plate. The Cubs lineup- 1 through 8, or 9 when Zambrano is pitching- is an elite unit this year.While I predict that, eventually, pitchers will develop a “book” on him and figure out how best to pitch this tough out, Fukudome has already supplanted himself as the patient lefty bat missing from the Cubs’ lineup in years past.

10. Ben Sheets and Rich Harden have already gotten injured, Barry Zito has been absolutely atrocious, and Roger Clemens still hangs over baseball like a black cloud of death.

Ok, these things didn’t surprise me at all.


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