The current economic conditions of America’s game have made teams rather predictable these days.
Big market clubs (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta) have enormous financial edges in competing for a championship over small payroll teams such as Minnesota, Montreal, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Baseball owners have been crying for new stadiums, which they say will generate more revenue to compete. But this is a bunch of baloney. The Tigers, Brewers, Blue Jays and White Sox have all built new parks over the last 10 years, but still don’t draw well. Meanwhile, organizations like the Orioles, Rangers and Rockies have new stadiums that produce plenty of money, but the teams are not very good.
But a breath of fresh air this April has been the early-season success of some small-market teams. Three weeks into the season, baseball enthusiasts were delighted to find the Pirates, Expos and Twins leading their divisions.
|RIGHT THERE ”” Brian Giles and Pirates are in thick of NL Central.|
Pittsburgh: The Pirates weren’t just bad last year, they were the worst team in the NL (62-100). But an improvement in both pitching and defense has lifted the Bucs to a surprising start.
Shortstop Jack Wilson, 24, along with free agent 2B Pokey Reese give Pittsburgh outstanding defense. That double-play combo helped propel the Pirates staff to the third-best ERA in the NL and the top groundball/flyball ratio.
Starting pitchers Josh Fogg, Jimmy Anderson, Dave Williams and Kip Wells are good and all under 25. The bullpen has also been strong with Scott Sauerbeck, Mike Lincoln, Brian Boehringer, Mike Fetters and closer Mike Williams. After being traded to Houston last year, Williams returned to Pittsburgh and became the first reliever this season to post eight saves.
Pittsburgh’s pitching has made up for a weak offense. The Pirates had the second-worst team batting average in the NL, and were last in home runs and walks. The Bucs probably will fade if the offense doesn’t improve, but they’ve stepped in and filled the void in the NL Central.
Montreal: Frank Robinson is the early Coach of the Year candidate with the hot start.
After 20 games, the Expos were leading the league in batting average (.279), RBIs (108), runs (118) and walks (98). The catalyst has been leadoff hitter Peter Bergeron, who doesn’t hit much for average, but draws plenty of free passes and owns an outstanding .380 on-base percentage.
Montreal 2B Jose Vidro bats after Bergeron and gets on base more, which allows Vladimir Guerrero, 1B Lee Stevens and catcher Michael Barrett to drive home runs in bunches.
The young pitching continues to improve with a talented starting four of Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Tomokazu Ohka, and Tony Armas, Jr. Montreal lost 94 games last year, but with a dose of good health, may have a shot at a winning season.
Minnesota: Of the three small-market teams on a hot start, the least surprising is Minnesota. The Twins won 85 games a year ago and were in the pennant race until key injuries hit in early August.
Smart trades and a good farm system have helped the Twins hit the jackpot with an outstanding young trio of arms in Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays.
Veteran starter Rick Reed rounds out a starting foursome equal to any in the majors. The bullpen is much improved, led by J.C. Romero and lefty Eddie Guardado, the first closer to reach nine saves. Outfielders Torri Hunter and Jacque Jones, along with infielders Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz provide a strong balance of speed, defense and power.
Minnesota was 15-1 to win the AL pennant two months ago, while Montreal and Pittsburgh were the longest shots in the NL at 65-1. A Twins/Expos World Series would certainly shake things up, but doesn’t look to be the smartest wager.