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MLB's Believe It Or Not

Max Meyer |
May 16, 2012 | 8:07 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Adam Jones and the Orioles' quick start surprised the Major Leagues. But can they keep it up (Creative Commons/Keith Allison)?
Adam Jones and the Orioles' quick start surprised the Major Leagues. But can they keep it up (Creative Commons/Keith Allison)?
Over a month-and-a-half into the 2012 season, some teams have been pleasantly surprising, and others have been shockingly dreadful. Which will keep up their pace and which others will turn it around?

Baltimore Orioles

The most surprising team in baseball not only leads the American League East, but also they are tied for the third-best record in baseball as well. The Orioles have played extremely stiff competition this month in the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, and Rays, yet have held their own by going 8-4 against those four teams in May. The Orioles also have a plus-15-run differential so far this season. Their young core of hitters of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis has all had strong starts to the season, and they have gotten surprise production from a revitalized Chris Davis. Baseball experts have gone from saying that the Orioles will remain in last place this season to putting them in the top five of their weekly power rankings. Despite all of these strong pieces of evidence that the Orioles have been anything but a fluke, DON'T BELIEVE IT

The first problem in legitimizing the Orioles is that their division is the toughest in baseball. All five teams in the AL East, yes, including the Red Sox (more on them later), have positive run differentials to start the season. Only seven other teams in baseball can say the same thing. Also, these AL East teams are succeeding despite the monster injuries that have attempted to ruin their starts to the season. The Rays lost their top hitter in Evan Longoria for six-to-eight weeks with a hamstring injury, and the Yankees lost their second-best pitcher Michael Pineda for the season with a right shoulder anterior labial tear. Yes, the Red Sox have a losing record, but they still have a positive run differential despite losing their catalyst Jacoby Ellsbury for six-to-eight weeks due to a dislocation of his right shoulder. If the Orioles lost either Jones or Wieters for even a month, there is no way they could possibly keep up with the rest of the AL East. Instead, the Orioles have remained relatively healthy besides surprisingly effective Nolan Reimold and the disappointing Mark Reynolds recently the hitting the D.L. However, the Orioles haven't had near the impact of injuries that the other teams in the AL East have had, and they've taken advantage of that during the start of the season. The Orioles still have to face the beasts of the AL East 52 times during the season, including in a whopping 25 of their last 31 games. Considering the Orioles have not even had a winning record since 1997, I just don't see them competing the way they have in their grueling September.

Now on to the actual team. The Orioles offense definitely has a lot of talent, but they are still one-dimensional. The Orioles lead the majors in home runs with 55 -- the problem is that they are very reliant on them. They are 17th in the MLB with a .310 OBP and they are second-to-last in baseball in steals. Once the Orioles' home run production reverts to more normal numbers, it's easy to see that it will be a lot more difficult for them to generate runs. However, their biggest question mark is still their starting rotation. Their new ace Jason Hammel has had an incredible start to the season, starting 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 43.2 innings. He has also been remarkably lucky. His career BAA (batting average allowed) is .282. This year, it has dropped almost 90 points to .196. Additionally, his lowest career ERA and WHIP in a season is 4.33 and 1.39, respectively, so it would be ridiculous to expect Hammel to keep up with his hot start. Granted, he is moving from Coors Field to Camden Yards, but shifting from the NL West to the AL East should make his numbers worse, not extremely better. Additionally, once Jake Arrieta was mashed by the Rays on Sunday, that gave the Orioles three starters with an ERA over 5.00. I just don't see the Orioles offense being able to keep up with the runs that their starting pitching will allow in the future. The Orioles' defense is also subpar -- they currently have 36 errors, which is the most in the American League. The pitching will need a lot of defensive support throughout the season, and rather the defense is hurting the pitching rather than helping them. The bullpen has been the real surprise, with five relievers who currently have a sub-2.00 ERA. Their overall bullpen ERA is 2.28, second best in the majors, however with not a lot of talent and mostly luck in the bullpen a huge regression should be approaching. 

The Orioles have also done this before this decade. In 2005, the Orioles started 42-28, but they managed to lose 60 of their last 92 games to finish in fourth place. The Orioles are a great story to start the season, and they will not lose even close to 100 games like several baseball analysts predicted. If they were in another division (like the AL Central), they would probably be good enough to compete for at least second place. However, in baseball's toughest division -- and with the four other AL East teams more talented than the Orioles -- it's difficult to see the Orioles placing higher than fourth to end the season. But, hey, if they do get fourth place, it'll be the first time since 2007 they haven't finished in the AL East's cellar. They also have a manager in Buck Showalter known for completely turning around teams, so look for the Orioles as soon as next year to start making some real noise.

Stephen Strasburg has been what the Nationals faithful hoped he was (Wikimedia Commons/dbking).
Stephen Strasburg has been what the Nationals faithful hoped he was (Wikimedia Commons/dbking).
Washington Nationals

The Nationals had a very strong offseason and have a lot of young talent, prompting me to boldly predict that they will make the playoffs this season. The Nationals' two prodigies, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, have had a huge impact this season and are showing why they were perceived to be the saviors in Washington. Led by their starting pitching, the Nationals are 21-13 to start the season and are only a half a game behind the Braves for first place in the NL East. The Nationals' injuries have been building up, which is leading to many questions about whether or not they can still play at such a high level. However, despite the injuries attempting to decimate the Nationals strong start, BELIEVE IT

The Nationals exceptional starting pitching is the reason why they have started the season so well. Four of their starters (Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann) have ERA's below 2.15, and the fifth starter Edwin Jackson has a not-too-shabby 3.71 ERA. None of the starters has a WHIP above 1.02 or a BAA over .219. Those stats are not just exceptional -- they are otherworldly. While the pitching may be a little too good to be true, the pitchers definitely have the talent to remain elite. Strasburg is probably the favorite for the NL Cy Young right now, starting the season 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and an almost five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio (56 to 12) in just 48 innings. Jordan Zimmermann is another former top pitching prospect, and despite the 2-3 record, his peripherals have been very strong. The Nationals bolstered their rotation over the offseason by acquiring Gonzalez and Jackson, and both pitchers have flourished pitching in the NL East. The one name baseball fans probably hadn't heard of before the season was Detwiler, but with the way he has been pitching, most of the baseball world knows him now. 

The offense and bullpen haven't been on the same level as the starting pitching, but that is due to the injuries both have accumulated. The Nationals recently got back cornerstone third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and the scorching hot Adam LaRoche back from injuries, however they lost young catcher Wilson Ramos for the year with a torn ACL. That's not only a huge blow for the lineup, but also a bigger blow to the staff that seemed very comfortable pitching to Ramos. Two of their better bats in Jayson Werth and Mike Morse are already on the D.L. as well, so it's understandable that the Nationals have scored the third-fewest amount of runs in the National League. However, ever since calling up young phenom Bryce Harper, I believe that the Nationals offense will improve significantly. While Harper's numbers aren't the best, he has shown poise light years ahead of what one would expect from a 19 year old in the majors. He's also starting to show some of his incredible power by hitting a home run in his past two games. I think Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche (who is hitting .325 with six homers) can keep this Nationals offense respectable until Werth and Morse return. That is when the offense will become above average, along with Danny Espinosa turning around what has been a miserable season. The bullpen, which has already lost closer Drew Storen until early June and seventh-inning man Brad Lidge, hasn't met expectations either. Temporary closer Henry Rodriguez is sporting an ugly 4.70 ERA and has blown multiple saves already. Previously automatic setup man Tyler Clippard has been a small disappointment as well with his 3.60 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP, but expect those numbers to improve as the season progresses. Once Storen comes back, though, I expect this bullpen to be lights out. 

The Nationals just have too much talent to be held out of a playoff spot this season. While the Braves will definitely compete with the Nationals at the top of the NL East (and maybe another NL East team talked about later in this article as well), there aren't a lot of Wild Card contenders in the other divisions. And despite manager Davey Johnson saying that Strasburg will have an innings cap this year, it's hard to believe Johnson shutting down his ace in the thick of a postseason run. Expect the Nationals to compete into October with their pitching and timely hitting reminding me of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

The Sox miss 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury and his shoulder. They'll have trouble recovering from their slow start this season (Creative Commons/Keith Allison).
The Sox miss 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury and his shoulder. They'll have trouble recovering from their slow start this season (Creative Commons/Keith Allison).
Boston Red Sox

Every baseball fan remembers their legendary collapse last September. Then, they replaced arguably their greatest manager and general manager in franchise history. New manager Bobby Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington were butting heads before the season even started. The Red Sox made some questionable moves over the offseason, such as trading promising shortstop Jed Lowrie for dispensable reliever Mark Melancon. Red Sox fans put up with this, just eagerly awaiting the start of the season. However, after witnessing the first six weeks of the Red Sox season, Boston fans just want to fast-forward to football season. This is the first time since 1997 that the Red Sox have been in last place this late into the season. While there's a chance they won't finish in last in the AL East this season, when it comes to their horrid start, BELIEVE IT.

Despite star Jacoby Ellsbury being on the D.L. for at least six-to-eight weeks with a dislocated shoulder and the slow start of Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox are still an elite offense. They are second in baseball in runs (behind Texas), and they are dominating in doubles by having 106 of them when the second highest team, the Royals, have 80 doubles. Rookie Will Middlebrooks has been on a tear to start the season, and may replace Kevin Youkilis sooner rather than later. Longtime Red Sox David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have once again had fantastic starts to the season. However, everyone knew that the offense wasn't the problem, that it was the pitching. Red Sox fans were banking on Jon Lester and Josh Beckett bouncing back from their beer and chicken-filled September to lead the team this season. Lester has been inconsistent at best, but he looks like an ace compared to Beckett. Beckett's ERA so far this season is 4.97, and he's 3-4. He played golf on his off day after saying he was injured, and he has heard a lot of boos from the Boston faithful. However, when the Red Sox thought it couldn't get any worse than Beckett, Clay Buchholz proved them wrong. While Clay somehow has four wins, it took until his seventh start for him to allow fewer than five runs in a start. He has an 8.31 ERA, and the days that he was considering a talented young pitcher seems very far away. Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront have been better than Beckett and Buchholz, but with both of them having over a 4.00 ERA, there is not one starter outside of Beckett that Boston can trust. There's no way a team can make the postseason, let alone survive in the AL East, if they only have one good starting pitcher.

The bullpen has also been extremely disappointing. After losing closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies and promoting Bard from setup man to the starting rotation, the bullpen has had many holes. Newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey has been on the D.L., so they relied on one of the few heroes from last season Alfredo Aceves as closer. Aceves has responded with two blown saves and a 5.74 ERA. Melancon had a 49.50 ERA before being sent down to the minors. The Red Sox have five blown saves as a team already, and until Bailey comes back, no one in Boston should trust that bullpen with a lead. 

The same reason I'm labeling the Orioles as a fluke is the same reason why I think the bad start by the Red Sox is a trend: the three other teams in the AL East are better teams. The Rays and Yankees -- despite their injuries -- seem like locks to make the postseason. The Blue Jays' offense is just as deadly as the Red Sox's, and their starting pitching has been much better. I just can't see the Red Sox doing better than fourth place in the AL East this season. Also, I can't believe that I'm saying this, but the Red Sox will battle with the Orioles for last place. At least your Celtics are still alive in the NBA Playoffs, Boston fans.

Jered Weaver (above) and C.J. Wilson have been studs on the mound, but the Angels' offense has been horrendous (Creative Commons/rocor).
Jered Weaver (above) and C.J. Wilson have been studs on the mound, but the Angels' offense has been horrendous (Creative Commons/rocor).
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

After a monster offseason that included the signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, several baseball analysts proclaimed that the Angels were the best team in the AL West (I was not one of them). Right now, thanks to a 16-21 start, they are seven-and-a-half games behind the Rangers and currently in third place. Pujols has been hearing whispers that he may be done, and the entire offense looks cooked so far as well. However, despite the Angels' slow start there are some encouraging signs, so DON'T BELIEVE IT.

The starting pitching was believed to have four aces at the beginning of the season, yet only two are pitching like it. Jered Weaver is having a fantastic start to the season, including throwing a no-hitter against the Twins, and Wilson has been the electric starter that the Angels paid for. Ervin Santana has not been good this season, already allowing 12 home runs with a 2-6 record. However, he has not received much run support, as the Angels have already been shut out on offense five times when he has started. Dan Haren has had the more troublesome start to his season, starting 1-4 with a 4.41 ERA. Haren is known to be much better during the first half of the season, and he has not pitched well against offensive lightweights such as the Twins, Royals and Athletics. But, once again, his run support has not been up to par, and his peripherals don't suggest the disappointing season so far. I fully expect Santana and Haren to bounce back, but they do need a lot more help from their offense. The bullpen though seems to be a strength of the team. Scott Downs, the temporary closer, still has not allowed a run this season. Ernesto Frieri since being acquired from the Padres has averaged over two strikeouts an inning. Jordan Walden had a shaky start to the season and was demoted from closer, but he has not allowed a run in his last four appearances. The young fireballer seems ready to regain his job, which should give the Angels three relievers they can trust with a lead. 

The offense is the biggest reason why the Angels have gotten off to such a poor start this season, and most of the blame can fall on the shoulders of Albert Pujols. He is hitting .212 right now and already had the longest homerless streak in his career at the beginning of the season. However, he still does have one more home run than every single pitcher combined in baseball. Pujols' biggest problem is the adjustment from the NL to AL, which will take time. Expect Pujols' best production to come after the All-Star break, where he usually catches his best hitting grooves. Mark Trumbo is having a very strong season with the bat, and the Angels' need to find more ways to put this guy in the lineup despite his abominable defense at third base. Howie Kendrick has started to step up his hitting, and super prospect Mike Trout seems like he's ready to stay in the big leagues after a disappointing stint last season. While the power isn't there for Kendrys Morales, he is managing to hit above .300. Once Pujols turns it around, this offense should be more than capable of lifting this team out of the AL West cellar and into the playoff race. 

Despite Pujols' horrid start, the Angels only have two more runs than the Athletics and two fewer than the Mariners do. The A's and M's also don't have the quality of pitching that the Angels do. Simply put, the Angels will be ahead of those two teams by the beginning of June. Finishing in second place in the AL West isn't the accomplishment the Angels are looking for, though. While I don't think they are the loaded team most people perceived them to be in the preseason, I think the final Wild Card spot will come down to them and the Blue Jays. And with the Blue Jays facing the AL East in September with the Angels facing the likes of the Athletics, Mariners, and Royals in 19 of their last 31 games, expect them to sneak into the playoffs as the AL's second wild card team. 

Despite Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels' strong starts, Roy Halladay has been below his typically great form (Creative Commons/SD Dirk).
Despite Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels' strong starts, Roy Halladay has been below his typically great form (Creative Commons/SD Dirk).
Philadelphia Phillies

The National League's most consistent team over the years had rough news to deal with about injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Their two middle-of-the-order guys have yet to play a game so far this season. While Howard is expected back in early June, there is still no timetable for Utley. The Phillies are currently in last place with an 18-19 record. Their general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. recently ripped the team and threatened to start trading some of the veterans. Along with playing in a relatively tough division, when it comes to the Phillies' slow start, BELIEVE IT.

The Phillies were one of four teams (Twins, Cubs, Padres) to not have a three-game winning streak this season until they beat Houston on Hunter Pence's walk off home run. The biggest reason why is their below average offense. Carlos Ruiz has been outstanding though, hitting .337 and showing power that was rarely displayed in his career. Pence and Shane Victorino have also been solid this season. The rest of the lineup is a bunch of yuck, though, led by Jimmy Rollins, whose career is quickly declining. This offense will not be able to lift the team out of this hole unless they get a 100-percent Howard and Utley, which is doubtful as well. The Phillies will not win consistently with guys like Freddy Galvis, Juan Pierre and John Mayberry Jr. in their lineup every day. The starting rotation, though, has been very good so far, but there may be trouble ahead. Cliff Lee has been great this season, but he has already had one D.L. stint that has greatly affected the team. Cole Hamels has been pitching excellently as well, but as an impending free agent with the Phillies clear on not giving him a new contract in his ballpark, Hamels could wind up being a major distraction down the stretch. If the Phillies really struggle into the heart of the season, there will be trade rumors involving Hamels and Victorino, both free agents after this season that can tear this team apart.

The third ace, Roy Halladay, hasn't been pitching as he has in years past. He has lost two miles-per-hour on his fastball, which may not sound like a lot, but it can cause big problems for pitchers. It's shown, because Halladay's 3.20 ERA and 3-3 record are certainly numbers that the pitcher has to consider to be disappointing. Joe Blanton and Vance Worley have put up nice numbers, but it will be up to Hamels, Lee and Halladay to help the Phillies out of this miserable start. However, with the bullpen having an atrocious season outside of the most expensive reliever in MLB history (Papelbon), it will be even tougher on them to have to pitch flawlessly every single time. With tough teams like the Braves (one of the best offenses in baseball this season numbers wise), Nationals (who may have a better rotation than the Phillies) and the Marlins (having a disappointing start of their own, but don't count them out with their talent) in their division, they need to rely on more than their three starters. 

A team should never have to rely on two injured players to save their team during the season. The Phillies have had a nice reign over the NL East, but I believe it ends this year. With the Nationals and Braves most likely fighting over the division crown throughout the season, the Phillies' only hope seems to be the Wild Card. They will have to compete with the Marlins, Reds, Giants and Diamondbacks (possibly the Dodgers as well if they cool off from their hot start, especially with Kemp on the D.L.), which will be a tough task. And if they can't score more than a couple runs for their pitchers, expect them to be sitting home in October. Just like I am.


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