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MLB: 8 Teams Whose Hot/Cold Starts Will Be Mirages

Evan BruschiniCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2011

MLB: 8 Teams Whose Hot/Cold Starts Will Be Mirages

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    It's often said that baseball, with its 162-game schedule, is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to put together a full body of work, so records on May 1 are often ignored.

    Every year, a handful of teams that weren't expected to contend begin the season with a blazing start. The media furor begins, and somebody's crowned the next Cinderella story of baseball.

    Anyone remember the 2007 Brewers? They started off the season with a 17-9 record through April, with their .654 winning percentage as the best in the league. They won their first National League pennant that year, right? Wrong. They finished the year by going 66-70 and dropping out of playoff contention in the last week of the season.

    Similarly teams can get off to rough patches due to injury or an unfavorable schedule, yet rebound to find their rightful places atop the standings.

    Last year one of those teams were the Braves, who began with a 10-14 record that put them in the cellar of the NL East. The only teams with worse winning percentages were the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Braves went an outstanding 81-56 the rest of the way to capture the NL wild card.

    So how can we predict which teams will get off to hot and cold starts in 2011?

    By using the projection for opponents' winning percentage in March and April, as well as home/away games and injuries, we can look at which teams have the smoothest Aprils before falling on their faces and which teams will struggle through a rough first month before regaining composure.

    Keeping with the "slow and steady wins the race" theme, I've sorted the following 10 teams into tortoises and hares.

Hare No. 4: Chicago Cubs

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .482

    March/April Home Games: 15

    March/April Road Games: 12

    For the North Side, it's never going to get better than it will be in the first month of the season.

    The Cubbies open 2011 by hosting the Pirates and Diamondbacks, the two worst teams in the National League from 2010.

    Meanwhile, they have just four road series—two against those same Diamondbacks and the lowly Astros, as well as against the Padres and Dodgers.

    Their only real challenges come in a home series against the Brewers and Rockies, who will visit for three games and then host the Cubs at Coors Field later in the month.

    Chicago's chances at the playoffs are low but optimistic, and they should improve after the Cubbies devour a weak opening schedule.

    But with a young team and little experience, expect Chicago to melt under the pressure of a hot pennant race.

Tortoise No. 4: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    March/April Strength of Schedule: .473

    March/April Home Games: 13

    March/April Road Games: 17

    Significant Injuries: Zack Greinke (four weeks), Corey Hart (7-10 days), Jonathon Lucroy (4-5 games), Manny Parra, LaTroy Hawkins

    After adding Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum to a rotation that already featured formidable arms Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf, the Brewers are everyone's favorite to win the NL Central.

    Don't be surprised if things don't go exactly as planned for the Brew Crew in April. The Crew begins the year with 17 of their first 30 games on the road, with stops in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

    Combined with a shellacking of various medical maladies, the Brewers faithful may find their team below .500 come May 1. Despite what might seem like a sinking ship, Brewers fans shouldn't jump yet. Greinke will return as the ace, and they should be ready to go by May.

    The problem comes in June, when the team makes stops in Boston and the Bronx for interleague matchups. If the Brewers can survive that midsummer storm, they should be the team to beat in the NL Central, regardless of a rocky start.

Hare No. 3: Cleveland Indians

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .479

    March/April Home Games: 14

    March/April Road Games: 13

    The Cleveland Indians don't have high expectations this year. They're looking at a third straight season in the AL Central cellar, with little to no hope for this season or the next. They have bright spots with Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo.

    When mixing up a batch of Cinderella stew, two of the main ingredients are youth and a tradition of ineptitude. Both are present in Cleveland, which hasn't won a major sports championship since the Browns claimed the NFL title in 1964. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948.

    So if the Indians get off to a good start, the media should be clamoring over them as the next Cinderella. They get off to a bit of a tough start, with series at home against the Red Sox and White Sox.

    After that, the competition drops off drastically, with series against the Mariners, Angels and Orioles, in addition to seven games against the Royals over the course of three weeks.

    With such a weak opening month, the Indians might be crowned the latest sequel to Major League. Yet don't be surprised when they fall flatter than Major League: Back to the Minors.

Tortoise No. 3: Chicago White Sox

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .502

    March/April Home Games: 12

    March/April Road Games: 16

    Significant Injuries: Jake Peavy (one month), Dayan Viciedo

    After signing super-slugger Adam Dunn this offseason, the White Sox are expected to contend for a division title in 2011.

    Don't act shocked when things aren't exactly as expected a month into the season. The Pale Hose have an easy first week, with trips to Cleveland and Kansas City. They should pick up a few wins in each stop.

    After that, the month becomes blacker than White Sox' jerseys and Brian Wilson's beard.

    After hosting the Rays, Athletics and Angels, Chicago takes off to play 11 games in 11 days in St. Petersburg, Detroit and the Bronx for one of the toughest road trips this season for any team outside the AL East.

    To top it off, the ChiSox are without Cy Young winner Jake Peavy for the first month of the season after his tendinitis diagnosis. All of this adds up to a bleak April on the North Side, but the White Sox should still be able to contend for a playoff spot.

Hare No. 2: Florida Marlins

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    March/April Strength of Schedule: .477

    March/April Home Games: 15

    March/April Road Games: 11

    The Phillies are the runaway favorites for the NL East in 2011, and they might just have the greatest starting rotation in baseball history.

    But it's never a shock when the Marlins compete early. In 2009, they seemed to be the best team in baseball, going 11-1 in their first 12 games and held a five-game lead on April 12. They weren't able to extend that lead for the rest of the season, eventually finishing second in the East behind the Phillies.

    This season, the Marlins are primed to get off to another blazing start. They face the Mets, Nationals and Astros to kick off the '11 campaign before getting a day to relax and travel to Atlanta and Philadelphia, after which they get another off day. After that, they host the Pirates.

    With such an easy schedule, the Marlins might appear to be contenders in early May. Their relative youth and inexperience should catch up to the team.

    Then again, this is baseball, where anything is possible, and the Marlins have ridden youth to a World Series title twice before. They might be the hardest team to figure out on this list.

Tortoise No. 2: Tampa Bay Rays

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    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .526

    March/April Home Games: 15

    March/April Road Games: 13

    Significant Injuries: J.P. Howell

    Usually AL East teams are known for their harrowing in-division schedule. This April, the Rays will be more worried about their opponents in the Central and West. They play the Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays three times each, but don't face the Yankees at all.

    Tampa faces the Minnesota Twins seven times, the Chicago White Sox eight times and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim four times.

    After opening up the year by hosting Baltimore, they get a day off before running the gauntlet—20 games in 20 days, playing five straight series against teams that have made the playoffs since 2008.

    Adding to that is the injury to veteran reliever J.P. Howell, who had 17 saves and a 2.84 ERA before season-ending surgery last year. The Rays will have to replace those saves, for the time being, with the likes of Kyle Farnsworth.

    After a rough start to the year, the Rays should get back on track thanks to the steady hand of manager Joe Maddon. Don't write them off after a tough April.

Hare No. 1: Cincinnati Reds

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .423

    March/April Home Games: 14

    March/April Road Games: 12

    As a Cardinals fan, I understand the criticism I might get for this pick. The Reds are the defending National League Central champions, and they're a great team. I certainly think they have a great chance to repeat this year.

    With that said, they're going to need to get off to a blazing start, because April is by far Cincinnati's softest month.

    The Redlegs open up the season by hosting the Brewers, who should give them a challenge. After that, they don't face any sort of difficulty until a road trip to Milwaukee and St. Louis, neither of whom aren't exactly World Series favorites.

    During the first month of the season, six teams visit the Great American Ballpark: Milwaukee, Houston, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Florida. Three of those teams will probably finish below .500, and while the Marlins are no slouches, they shouldn't give Cincinnati, one of the top teams in baseball, too much trouble.

    Don't be surprised if Cincy's leading the league one month in, but I'd be shocked if they keep up such a torrid pace for the whole season.

Tortoise No. 1: Toronto Blue Jays

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Projected March/April Opponents' Win%: .537

    March/April Home Games: 11

    March/April Road Games: 16

    Significant Injuries: Brandon Morrow (one-two weeks), Frank Francisco (two weeks), Octavio Dotel (one week)

    The Blue Jays are a young team, and a young team combined with a tough April schedule usually ends badly. Unfortunately, the Jays don't have a tough schedule. They have a schedule from hell.

    In just 30 days, they play the Twins, Rays, Athletics, Angels three times each, and the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers—three playoff favorites—four each. Someone probably thought it was funny to stuff in a single series in Seattle, just to give Toronto some hope for half a week.

    Even though they get a chance at a sweep in Seattle, the Blue Jays will be hard-pressed to find six wins for the rest of the month.

    They'll spend more than half the month away from Rogers Centre. Last year, the Jays were 40-44 on the road. I don't expect that to improve this year, and with three straight road series in Boston, Texas and the Bronx, they might not get a win away this side of the border in the second half of April.

    After the first month of the season, things will get slightly easier for the Blue Jays, so they should experience a rebound. All I'm saying is: don't jump on John Farrell when Toronto is in last place on May 1. They still have the firepower to finish above .500 this season.

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