Yanks playing catch-up after first month

May 3, 2005 8:27 AM

One month into the 2005 baseball season, some early season assessments can be made.

A pair of American League teams expected to be improved, but not enough to contend sport baseball’s best record. Chicago’s White Sox are 18-7 and the Baltimore Orioles are 17-7. Baltimore has opened a four game lead over both Boston and Toronto with the New York Yankees a surprising 7½ games off the pace.

The Yankees just completed their first losing April in well over a decade. It’s early, but the signs discussed a couple of weeks ago are there for New York. Barring some in-season acquisitions, much of the baseball world might well be shocked when they look at the AL East standings at the All Star break. Chicago is 2½ ahead of Minnesota, whose 15-9 mark is third best in the AL. Baseball’s most bunched division is the AL West, where the Angels lead last place Texas by just 2½.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in the senior circuit at 16-8, with Arizona just 1½ back. The Diamondbacks are much improved over last season and should contend throughout the season with a well-balanced lineup along with decent pitching.

The St. Louis Cardinals have the NL’s second best record at 15-8 and are the only team in the Central with a winning record. That has allowed the defending NL champions to open an early 3½ game lead over the Chicago Cubs.

Florida and Atlanta are tied atop the East, each winning 60 percent of their games to date. Washington and the New York Mets are right behind, with last place Philadelphia just four games from the lead. Only Texas has a better record than the -Phillies for a last place team and the Rangers are laggards in baseball’s only four team ivision, the AL West.

Keep an eye on the injury list throughout the season. In the early going, closers have been hit very hard by the injury bug. Closer is perhaps the most vital position in baseball in late inning, tight games. Much like the placekicker in football, the closer is called upon to win games, getting the final few outs to protect a slim lead. Eric Gagne has yet to appear in a game for the Dodgers this season and just within the past week Jason Isringhausen and Armando Benitez have joined other closers on the disabled list.

Still, bullpens are fresher one month into this season than in recent years as starters continue to go deeper into games. Whether this trend will continue as the weather warms up remains to be seen. The role of the bullpen remains one of the key handicapping factors that is often overlooked by the casual handicapper.

A fresh bullpen gives a manager many more options for the following game or two. Though imperfect statistics, the "hold’ and ”˜save’ and especially ”˜blown save’ give better insights into relief pitcher effectiveness than students of the game two decades ago had available at their disposal.

Here’s a look at four interesting series to be played this weekend.

Phils at Cubs: For many years the Cubs and Phillies lit up the scoreboard in Wrigley Field. In recent seasons the teams have relied more on pitching. The Cubs have lost significant power from last season with the departure of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou. The Phils have not had much beyond Jim Thome to rely upon for the long ball.

Both teams do have solid rotations and winds will be the major factor in setting series totals. Preferred picks: The UNDER. Brett Myers and ex-Cub Jon Lieber have been Philadelphia’s best starters this season. Both are playable at —125 tops. The Phillies are also playable as underdogs against all Cub starters except Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs would be playable with Zambrano at —140 tops if Myers or Lieber don’t pitch.

Padres at Cards: San Diego has been a major disappointment over the season’s first month, while St. Louis has pretty much continued its strong play from last season. The Padres are expected to contend in the NL West, but a severe lack of offense has put greater pressure on its solid though unspectacular starting rotation. St. Louis has gotten better than expected efforts from its starters. Matt Morris has seemingly returned to his form of several seasons ago before injuries derailed him.

Of the five Cardinals starters Chris Carpenter has the only ERA above 3.50. At 4.01, that shows outstanding depth. Preferred picks: UNDER 8 is the first way to look. The only exception would be if San Diego’s fifth starter, Tim Redding, gets a start. Then play OVER if less than 10. San Diego’s best chance is with Jake Peavy at -120 against any Cardinals hurler. Otherwise, with the exception of Redding, play San Diego as underdogs of at least +150.

Mariners at Red Sox: Both teams have played right around .500 ball in the opening month of the season. Each side has suffered the loss to injury of key starting pitchers (Boston’s David Wells and Curt Schilling, Seattle’s Bobby Madritsch). Overall, Boston starters have outperformed Seattle’s and the Red Sox should be healthy favorites throughout this series.

No true ”˜ace’ is available for either side. Preferred picks: OVER if below 10 in any game. Seattle at +170 except in a start by Jamie Moyer. Otherwise, play Seattle at +150 with Moyer. Bet Boston —150 favorite in any other scenario. The Sox could sweep this weekend series with edges in both pitching and hitting over the improved M’s.

White Sox at Blue Jays: After enduring a mini three-game losing streak, Chicago ended the weekend by taking the final two games against Detroit. The White Sox have gotten outstanding starting pitching throughout the rotation with ace Mark Buehrle’s 3.89 ERA the highest (by nearly a run) amongst the five starters. The offense has been basically average, but very effective.

Toronto starts the week a couple of games above .500 and its season has been marked by the emergence of young Gustavo Chacin as a solid member of the rotation. Preferred picks: Toronto will be playable as underdogs in starts by Chacin and ace Roy Halladay. Otherwise play the White Sox up to -140. Bet UNDER at 8 or higher in starts by Halladay and Chacin. Stay with UNDER in starts by other Toronto starters at 9 or higher.