By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
The first two weeks of a baseball season can overflow with surprises, which doesn’t make them decisive or very informative. The naked eye sees crazy images and wonders if baseball might be changing. But the more discerning eye looks a little deeper, often spotting the obvious that lies beneath the bizarre.
Take, for example the National League Central Division, where the St. Louis Cardinals jumped out to first place with nine wins in their first 12 games. As the Cardinals are clearly in decline, judging from the last three full seasons, they might be off to a surprising start.
Then, one notes that the Cardinals played nine of those games against the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants, three clubs with last-place potential. The Cardinals won seven of those outings. Suddenly, the Cardinals aren’t such a surprise. They’re merely shown, as widely predicted, that they’re not as poor as the league’s worst clubs.
By way of review and preview, then, take a look at the NL Central clubs bearing in mind the Houston Astros and their chances, which appear minimal. We’ll start at the top of the standings through April 13 and working towards the bottom.
St. Louis Cardinals – We’re about to describe the stunning effectiveness of a starting rotation composed of Todd Wellemeyer, Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, Brad Thompson and Adam Wainwright. First, however, a note of context: the four clubs St. Louis played through the first two weeks – Colorado, Washington, Colorado and San Francisco – were the bottom four National League clubs in on-base plus slugging percentages (OPS).
So, Kyle Lohse, late of the Reds, tossed 12 scoreless innings in his first two starts. Through April 11, St. Louis starters notched a 2.35 ERA, second in the major leagues only to San Diego (1.49). The bullpen ERA of 3.38 was solid by this year’s early standards and closer Jason Isringhausen allowed no runs in his first six appearances.
Working against the NL dregs, St. Louis pitchers walked only 24 hitters and struck out 99, the third best ratio in the big leagues. And St. Louis hitters exhibited good plate discipline, taking 46 walks and striking out only 52 times.
Thus far, at least, we can say the Cardinals are playing the game right. We’ll know if they can play the game well once they start lining up against contenders. By then, maybe, they’ll return Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder to their starting rotation, and Matt Clement is a possibility down the road.
Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers are doing what they’re supposed to do, sweeping three against San Francisco and splitting their games against the Reds, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. Their hitting wasn’t anything special – just .250 with a .714 OPS. But no club hits better with runners in scoring position. The Brewers led all of baseball by hitting .358 (29 for 81) under those circumstances.
So, the Brewers have maximized their hits, even with the likes of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks and Corey Hart hardly hitting at all. But Jason Kendall is making a difference, batting .424 and throwing out three of seven base stealers. Bill Hall didn’t hit often (.244), but he did hit powerfully (five homers). Gabe Kapler, who managed in Class A ball last year, is batting .364 with three homers in the first two weeks for Milwaukee.
Ben Sheets (3-0, 1.17 ERA) and Jeff Suppan (1-0, 2.13) are lifting the front of the pitching rotation, and now the Brewers have called up their top prospect, Yovani Gallerdo. Eric Gagne isn’t blowing them away as the new Milwaukee closer, but he notched two saves and a win despite his 9.00 ERA in his first four appearances.
Chicago Cubs – Lou Piniella is turning the Cubs into quite a dynamic operation. The Cubs stole 11 bases in their first ten games, their fastest trip to double figures since 1991. But it’s every bit as easy to run on the Cubs and their rookie catcher, Geovany Soto, who threw out only two of ten base stealers.
On the up side, Soto batted .297 with two homers. Another newcomer, right fielder Kosuke Fukodome, tied for the major league with 15 walks in his first two weeks of American baseball, also hitting four-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Derek Lee hit four homers in the first two weeks, followed by Aramis Ramirez with three.
The Chicago bullpen is off to a good start. Between them, middle men Carlos Marmol, Jon Lieber, Matt Weurtz and Sean Marshall allowed only two earned runs in their first 25 innings. Kerry Wood bombed in his debut as a closer, but since then has notched three saves. Again, though, look at the schedule. The Cubs were 5-1 against Houston and Pittsburgh, but 1-4 against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Cincinnati Reds – Through April 12, the Reds still were the only club to beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, winning two of three in the opening series. The Reds also beat Milwaukee two of three and split four games with Philadelphia. So, the Reds held fast against playoff contenders.
Then, the Reds went to Pittsburgh to play the perennially last-place Pirates. Suddenly, the Reds couldn’t score and they lost games 1-0 and 4-3. If the Reds can’t handle Pittsburgh, Washington, Houston and San Francisco, it won’t matter how they do with Arizona, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Taking a slightly longer view, the Reds are promising from a pitching standpoint. The Reds led the National League with 84 strikeouts and walked only 27 batters, tied with the Cubs for second fewest in the NL. On the flip side, the Reds gave up 17 homers, most in the NL. You can’t say they don’t throw strikes.
Get a load of that Reds bullpen. In seven games through April 12, Reds relievers tossed a 2.14 ERA and, through the season, opponents touched them for only a .193 batting average. Kent Mercker (2.45 ERA) and Jeremy Affeldt (2.25) are solid setting up from the left side, while Mike Lincoln, Jarrod Burton and David Weathers are doing it from the right. In the end, Coco Cordero put up two saves without giving up a run in his first four outings as the new closer.
Pittsburgh Pirates – One keeps thinking the Pirates might make progress, then watches them play. Between a lack of depth in the batting order, almost no bullpen and the worst defense in baseball, they just can’t stack up over the long haul.
Starting pitchers like Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny might not match the Boston Red Sox, but they don’t stink. Batters like Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez and Adam LaRoche would fit in with many better ball clubs. But none of these guys makes as much difference as throwing errors and weak middle relief.
Houston Astros – Surprisingly, the Astros have six quality starts and Roy Oswalt is the worst guy in their rotation. Because of another surprise – Houston’s weak hitting – the Astros didn’t turn a quality start into a win until April 12.
Center fielder Michael Bourn is electric once he reaches base, but that isn’t often enough and the projected two-hole hitter, Kaz Matsui, is still out. Hunter Pence isn’t hitting against anyone and flopped as the No. 2 hitter. Pence, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada, three powerful right-handed bats, have hardly touched left-handed pitchers.