Baseball’s stumbling frauds

May 29, 2007 2:51 AM

There’s been plenty of focus on the great play of the Brewers and the continuing strong starts of the Indians, Braves, Red Sox and Mets. Less attention has been paid to the busts.

In baseball, every year there are surprises — those teams that have perplexed and disappointed prognosticators. Here’s a look at a few and why fortunes have gone wrong.

Reds: Is it true this team started 4-1 and was in first place? How? Regardless, they’re now in last. Their biggest problem is pitching, particularly in the bullpen. They are a team of extremes — two quality starters in righties Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo followed by a whole lot of nuthin.’

The Cincinnati bullpen has been flammable, yielding 38 runs in the eighth inning. That’s one more run than they’ve given up in the seventh and ninth innings combined. If you ever doubted the importance of set up men, the Reds sinking ship will straighten you out.

Cubs: Chicago was embarrassed by the 2006 flame-out season, so the franchise became a huge spender over the winter. A $300 million overhaul brought in Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly. Despite all the money flying through the air, the Cubbies started 15-16 as a favorite. The investment produced a -16.7 percent wagering return. Piniella was busy last week making changes to an explosive bullpen — bringing in Carlos Marmol and Angel Guzman while moving Neal Cotts out.

Along with the bullpen changes, the Cubs inserted lefty Sean Marshall into the starting rotation. He became the third lefty in the rotation, joining Ted Lilly and Rich Hill. The Cubs rank near the top of the NL in pitching, fielding and hitting, yet they have been losing. That’s explained in part by a 2-10 record in one-run games and a bullpen with a 3-11 record that has blown seven saves. If the Cubs can get Carlos Zambrano more consistent, they could improve.

Mariners: Seattle started the season 5-3, led by dominating young pitcher Felix Hernandez. A young ace can do wonders for a staff and the M’s had high hopes for 2007. Then they lost 6 in a row as Hernandez missed a month with an elbow problem.

Seattle is not lacking for talent, with players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, catcher Kenji Johjima, closer J.J. Putz and hard throwing starter Hernandez. The offense draws the fewest walks in the AL. Without Hernandez, the pitching staff plummeted to one of the weakest in the league. Yet, with Felix now back, perhaps they can right the ship. Seattle began 8-3 against lefty pitchers.

Rangers: Texas surprised last season with an improved pitching staff that brought in free agents Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. The two combined for 31 wins. This season, they are an awful 4-10 together with stratospheric ERAs.

Just as bad has been a surprisingly cold offense. The Rangers pitching, fielding and hitting are all ranked second to last in the AL. Equally awful is their road play, a 7-17 start away from home!

Cardinals: It appears more and more that the defending champs caught lightening in a bottle last October. They struggled through a poor 83-win season, got hot at the right time and somehow won the World Series. Now the spell is gone as they’ve turned back into a frog. Ace Chris Carpenter has been on the shelf with injuries, plus the once-vaunted offense is near the bottom of the NL in slugging and on base percentage.

St. Louis has been huge money-burners with a -23 ROI and a losing record as a favorite. If they are going to make a push, it will likely come over the next four weeks. The immediate schedule ahead for the Cardinals is paved with series against sub-.500 clubs. The Cardinals have 23 of the next 26 games (five series) against opponents with losing records.