Dodgers, Mets, Braves top NL

Apr 24, 2007 6:59 AM

Three weeks into the 2007 baseball season and several observations can be made concerning early season play.

Atlanta, Los Angeles and the New York Mets are the early season class of the National League. This trio is a combined 36-18. All three teams have gotten better starting pitching than expected in fashioning their early season records and each has above average lineups. In particular the Mets have a potent offense. Of the three, they have the greatest starting rotation concerns.

The Dodgers may be the best balanced of the three, especially with the early season form being displayed by the starters. Brad Penny has been especially effective. In four starts this season, Penny has gone at least 6 innings in each, yet to allow more than two earned runs in a start and owns a 1.37 ERA.

As impressive as Penny has been, Tim Hudson has been even better for the Braves. Going at least 7 in his four starts, Hudson has allowed just one run twice and none in the other two. His ERA is a stellar 0.82. Two of his starts have been at home and two on the road. He has faced each of his NL East rivals once.

Both Hudson and Penny have been hampered by injuries in recent seasons but appear fully healthy starting this season. Both appear poised to fill the high expectations held by many when they made their MLB debuts to much fanfare years ago. Look to play both these hurlers as underdogs or short priced favorites as long as they remain cheaply priced.

After starting 1-6, Philadelphia has split the last 10 games. Washington has also split the last 10 after a 1-8 beginning. The Phils return to mediocrity should be much more lasting with enough talent to contend in the division. Washington’s recent success should be short lived. Their roster is lacking in terms of significant major league experience, especially on the mound.

Following a three game sweep of the New York Yankees this past weekend, Boston has emerged with the best record in the American League at 12-5. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been more effective in his two road starts than in his two at Fenway but the Red Sox overall rotation has performed well. Now the bats are starting to heat up. Boston’s first home sweep over New York since 1990 has dropped the Yanks to a game under .500 and third place in the AL East.

The AL Central was expected to be baseball’s best division, even with the presence of the perpetually rebuilding Kansas City Royals. That forecast has proven true early on, even though the Royals are predictably in last place with a 6-12 record. The other four teams in the division have winning records. No other division can make such a claim.

On the other hand, no team in the AL West begins the week with a winning record. Both Oakland and the LA Angels of Anaheim top the division at 9-9. Each has received solid starting pitching, while fielding below average lineups. That figures to be what will keep each in contention for the division title all season.

For Oakland, both Danny Haren and Rich Harden are off to outstanding starts. As with Penny and Hudson, they should be looked at as "play on" pitchers when attractively priced.

The Angels were buoyed by the effective return of Bartolo Colon last Sunday. Colon’s return followed by a few days the rather average comeback of last season’s phenom, Jered Weaver. Still, Weaver has the potential to put up some big numbers as he did in his 19 starts in 2006 (2.56 ERA, 1.03 WHIP).

Overall, pitching has dominated hitting. Scoring is down by more than one run per game over the same period last season. Through the first three weeks, teams were combining to average 10.2 runs per game (10.1 in the NL, 10.3 in the AL). Overall the OVER held a 149-110 edge with 15 games pushing the posted total.

Thus far, teams are combining to average 9 runs per game (8.7 in the NL, 9.3 in the AL). During the past week, we have seen offenses begin to get on a roll.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Milwaukee at Houston: The Brewers took 2-of-3 at home from the Astros this past weekend in a trio of close games. Beginning the week, these were the only winning teams in the NL Central. The Brewers led the division by 1½ games. After struggling on offense in the season’s first week, the Astros bats have produced. Houston is averaging over 5½ runs per game in their last 10. The Brewers have followed a similar pattern, with more offense over the past week. Houston’s Roy Oswalt is the premier pitcher in this series although Milwaukee was able to get to him this past Sunday.

Milwaukee has gotten above average pitching from their entire rotation, anchored by Ben Sheets and complimented by Chris Capuano and David Bush. Preferred plays: Any of these four starters as underdogs. UNDER 8 or higher in a matchup of Oswalt against any of the three. Otherwise OVER 9 or lower when Houston starts a pitcher other than Oswalt.

LA Dodgers at San Diego: This shapes up to be a series dominating by pitching although the Dodgers have a very solid lineup and the Padres have hit better than expected. Still, these teams rely much more on pitching than offense for their success. Preferred plays: Both teams as underdogs when their top pitchers are starting. For the Dodgers they would be Brad Penny, Derrick Lowe and lefty Randy Wolf who has been sharp in his first four starts.

The Padre starters worth backing as pups would include Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Greg Maddux. UNDER 7 In a matchup involving two of these six starters. If any of the six opposes a pitcher not listed, that pitcher may be played if a -140 favorite.

Boston at NY Yanks: Early season revenge will be on the minds of the Yankees following the three losses in Boston this past weekend. The three games were predictably high scoring as the teams combined for 13, 12 and 13 runs. We should see similarly high scoring games this weekend. Preferred plays: OVER 10 or less. The Yanks’ best starter Andy Pettitte started and relieved over the weekend, but is scheduled to pitch this Wednesday. That means he likely does not start in this series, which lessens the chance for a low scoring game. Expect the Yankees to take at least two of the three games. Because Boston does have an edge in the starting rotation the Yankees are not likely to be heavily favored and might even be pick’em or underdogs if Boston starts Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett. YANKS -150 regardless of who starts.

Minnesota at Detroit: Despite the retirement of Brad Radke and the injury that will sideline sensational lefty Francisco Liriano all season, Minnesota has gotten solid starting pitching from sources other than ace Johan Santana. In addition to Santana, Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva and Ramon Ortiz have pitched very well. Detroit has also gotten strong pitching from their top trio of Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman, In their combined 12 starts only once has any failed to last 6. None of the three has allowed more than three earned runs in any of the starts and the trio sports a combined 2.24 ERA over 80 innings. Both teams are averaging an identical 4.8 runs through their first 18 games. Preferred plays: Again, use the six listed pitchers as your guide playing any made the underdog. Also, UNDER 8 in matchups pitting two of the six against one another.