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Biggest Surprises Of The 2011 MLB Season (So Far)

Ben Gross |
June 13, 2011 | 10:18 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Asdrubal Cabrera is quietly becoming one of the league's star shortstops. (MissChatter via Creative Commons)
Asdrubal Cabrera is quietly becoming one of the league's star shortstops. (MissChatter via Creative Commons)
Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of consistency.

Over the course of 162 games, statisticians can collect a pretty significant sample size to measure the performance of players and teams.

However, streaks and slumps early on in the season can really set teams apart in the standings. The slow start by the Boston Red Sox was well-documented, and as fun as it was to see Red Sox Nation sweat, they currently sit right where they were projected to be atop the ultra-competitive AL East. Point being, after 60 games, things should start leveling out, and that time tested consistency should set things right in the world of baseball.

So as the calendar turned to June, I was especially surprised to see a few teams that were projected to finish at the bottom of their division sitting in prime positions near the top.

Why?

Some point to the growing parity in baseball as a main cause, and it will undoubtedly be a major storyline if this trend continues in the 2011 season.

But when push comes to shove, it’s time to ask ourselves: do these teams have what it takes to play on into October?

Cleveland Indians (34-29, 1st place AL Central)

The Cleveland Indians are indisputably the feel good story of 2011 so far.

Inspired by a mammoth performance from shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who leads the team in batting average (.296), home runs (12), and RBI’s (42), the tribe has taken on a whole new identity.

From all accounts, Cabrera is benefiting greatly from the tutelage of veteran infielder Orlando Cabrera, who has encouraged his young counterpart to trust his power and take a swing for the fence every once and awhile.

Think it’s paid off?

Asdrubal Cabrera is currently second in the in the All-Star voting for AL shortstop (behind the much more popular and enormously less deserving Derek Jeter).

The best part of this team is that everyone pitches in (14 position players have played in at least 25 games this season). Rising stars Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana have arrived in a big way, and even perennial DL’ers Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore have stopped in occasionally to contribute between stints on the disabled list.

Fausto Carmona was supposed to lead an unproven young rotation, but instead is being shown up by his lesser-known rotation mates. Cleveland fans have enjoyed great performances from Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin, who are starting to pitch like veterans, and Chris Perez has proved himself an above average closer.

So does the tribe have what it takes to stick it out in the AL Central?

My gut tells me no, although of all the teams discussed here, I think they have the best shot. Detroit is closing in on them fast (tied for 1st place as of Sunday), and on paper the Tigers look much better than the Tribe.

Still, the Indians have stuck around much longer than I expected, partially due to an excellent 20-12 record at home.

To make a serious run in the playoffs they will need Hafner or Sizemore to return to their former glory, but first they them need to be healthy. Until then, Cleveland will have to do its best to hang around until September, then gear up to make a run.

Seattle Mariners (34-32, 1.5 games behind in the AL West)

Pineda's pitching has helped Seattle climb up the rankings in the AL West. (Keith Allison via Creative Commons)
Pineda's pitching has helped Seattle climb up the rankings in the AL West. (Keith Allison via Creative Commons)
The Mariners seem to have come a long way since their last place 2011 campaign.

The big story in Seattle is rookie starter Michael Pineda, who has posted a 6-3 record and an impressive 2.33 ERA, all while leading his team in WAR (2.7).

The best part for M’s fans? He’s only 22.

Pineda leads a strong rotation featuring reigning Cy Young champ Felix Hernandez, veteran Erik Bedard, and under-the-radar flyers Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. Together, they are one of the top rotations in the AL.

The offense, on the other hand, has been absolutely horrendous.

The Mariners rank in the bottom three in runs and slugging percentage, and dead last in the majors in batting average (.229) and on base percentage (.299).

Chone Figgins has been called the biggest disappointment in baseball this year, not exactly what you want from a guy who’s in the second year of a four-year, 36 million-dollar contract. Even the legendary Ichiro looks a bit lost at the dish, posting numbers far below his previous career lows (.256/.306/.294…ouch). This team’s lineup is about as fearsome as a basket full of kittens, and at this rate, kittens may even post a higher OBP.

Don’t believe me?

After Adam Kennedy (who doesn’t actually have enough at-bats to qualify for this discussion), the team leader in batting average is Brendan Ryan at .255.

They say pitching wins championships, but you can’t win a game without scoring at least one run, and this Mariners team can’t exactly guarantee they’ll deliver in that department. They’ve quite literally given up as many runs as they’ve scored (233-233 as of Saturday), and it seems as though only a coin flip has put them above .500.

In order to stay relevant, this pitching staff has no room for error, not even a hiccup. Otherwise, expect to see the M’s head quickly toward the cellar.

Arizona Diamondbacks (36-30, 1 game behind in the NL West)

Young pitcher Ian Kennedy leads an inconsistent D'Backs rotation. (CEBI Imagery via Creative Commons)
Young pitcher Ian Kennedy leads an inconsistent D'Backs rotation. (CEBI Imagery via Creative Commons)
The Diamondbacks weren’t included in most preseason discussions, but seven wins in a row at the end of May put them right in the middle of things in the NL West.

The Reigning Champion San Francisco Giants are banged up to say the least, so the Diamondbacks have a prime opportunity to gain some ground in the division.

Justin Upton and Chris Young are two of the games most promising young outfielders, and, while they haven’t exactly arrived at superstardom yet, have been solid contributors. Upton, Young, Stephen Drew, and Kelly Johnson make up the core of this free-swinging Arizona lineup that ranks 7th in the majors in both runs and slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, former USC standout Ian Kennedy is quickly becoming one of the most reliable starters in the game, earning a 3.01 ERA en route to a 6-2 record. The rest of the rotation is a bit makeshift, as only Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders (in addition to Kennedy) have kept a regular starting job. The bullpen, which was completely horrid last year, has at least found a closer in J.J. Putz and is currently on the way to righting the ship.

If the Diamondbacks are going to stay relevant this year, it is absolutely essential that they get hot right now, while the Giants are banged up.

Even with all the injuries, the defending champs have managed to compile one of the best records in baseball, meaning if the Diamondbacks want to stick around, they’ll certainly have to earn it. 

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