So far what's down now up in both leagues

April 30, 2008 2:57 AM
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The 3-2 Pitch by Andy Iskoe | The 2008 season is a month old and most teams have played between 25 and 30 games – nearly a sixth of the season.

It’s still very early as the first meaningful milepost is generally considered Memorial Day. But there are signs that this could be a season with an above average amount of turnover where contending teams are concerned.

A look at the standings shows several surprises, not the least of which is that Baltimore and Tampa Bay are tied atop the American League East. Both the Orioles and the newly rechristened Rays (nee Devil Rays) were picked to be among the worst teams in baseball.

Similarly, Florida leads the NL East despite trading away a couple of key producers in the offseason.

The Chicago White Sox were not given much consideration for contending from the AL Central where the leading contenders are expected to be Cleveland and Detroit. But the Sox have gotten off to a fast 14-10 start and are the only team in the division playing .500 or better ball four weeks into the season.

The Los Angeles Angels sit atop the AL West with the league’s best record, 16-10. But tied with the Angels are the Oakland Athletics, another team that unloaded salary in the offseason.

Oakland is a well-run organization that has shown a great knack for identifying and developing young talent. Over the past decade the A’s have played outstanding baseball after the All-Star break.

Form is holding true in the NL Central where Chicago’s Cubs have started 16-9. But only a half-game back is St. Louis. With an unheralded starting rotation along with an offense that consists largely of Albert Pujols and average support, the Cards have been an early-season pleasant surprise. Keep an eye on a pair of their starting pitchers. Both Adam Wainwright and Todd Wellemeyer are bet-on pitchers in the near term.
But baseball’s best team according to the record resides several hundred miles south of Las Vegas. At 18-7, the Arizona Diamondbacks have already opened up a six-game margin in the NL West, by far the largest of any division leader.

The Snakes are a well-balanced team with a solid rotation and an above average offense. Consider that in the first 25 games, Arizona has scored fewer than four runs just three times. With that kind of consistency the Diamondbacks are worth backing in underdog roles in most situations, especially in division games.

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

Cubs at Cardinals: These long time rivals renew their intense rivalry with both teams off to strong starts. The Cubs have been getting steady contributions from both their pitching and their bats. Former starter Kerry Wood continues to adapt to his new role of closer.

St. Louis has an emerging rotation that should continue to improve. Albert Pujols continues to lead what seemingly is a rather ordinary offense but new names are emerging as key contributors.

Preferred plays:

• Either team as underdogs of at least +120 in any matchup.

• St. Louis at least +130 against Carlos Zambrano.

Under 9 or higher in matchups featuring Wainwright, Wellemeyer or Kyle Lohse opposing Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano, Rich Hill or Ted Lilly.

Mets at D’backs: East meets West as two of the top teams in the league do battle. On paper the Mets appear to be the more complete team, but Arizona has fashioned a record that suggests otherwise.

Two of the Mets’ key players, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, have struggled early. The Mets offense has suffered as a result. Arizona’s offense has been very consistent and has gotten contributions up and down the lineup.

Preferred plays:

• Mets as underdogs in starts by John Maine and Oliver Perez against Brandon Webb or Randy Johnson.

• Arizona as underdogs against Johan Santana.

• Arizona favored by +125 tops in a start by Dan Haren.

Under 8 or higher if Santana or Maine face Haren or Webb.

Over 9 or lower in games involving none of these four starters.

Mariners at Yanks: Both teams are expected to be contenders although each is off to slow starts. Seattle has the better pitching especially at the top of the rotation with starters Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard. The Yanks ace has been Chien Ming Wang. The Yanks have won all six of his starts.

Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina have also had some decent efforts, but the two veterans are prone to inconsistent outings as well. Their young starters have struggled early. The Yankees have the potentially more explosive lineup but injuries have hampered their productivity this month.

Preferred plays:

• Seattle as underdogs.

• Seattle as a -120 favorite or less in starts by Bedard and Hernandez.

• Yankees at -140 or less against other Seattle starters.

Under 9 or higher if Bedard or Hernandez oppose Wang, Mussina or Pettitte.

Over 9 or lower when none of those pitchers are involved.

Tigers at Twins: Detroit has started to play better baseball following its 0-8 start, while Minnesota is likely to be no better than a .500 team at season’s end. The Tigers are still not getting the strong starting pitching that was expected of them except for young Armando Galarraga, who has looked sharp in his three starts. Nate Robertson, Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander each have ERAs above 6.45 and have combined for just two "quality starts" in 16 outings this season.

Minnesota has a pair of solid hitters in Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, but the surrounding talent is average at best. The Tigers have the much more potent lineup. There is no proven ace on the Twins staff, but in Minny does have one of the game’s best closers in Joe Nathan.

Preferred plays:

• Minnesota as underdogs in any matchup except against Galarraga.

• Detroit as underdogs in a start by Galarraga.

• Detroit at no more than -125.

Under 9 or higher if Galarraga opposes Boof Bonser, rookie Nick Blackburn or Scott Baker.

Over 9 or lower in games not started by Galarraga or Baker.