Small markets carry opening bargains

Apr 22, 2003 7:23 AM

Apparently, small market Anaheim rising to win the World Series has carried over to this season.

Early season success or failure doesn’t really mean much. Patience is key in life and in baseball, as a 162-game regular season clearly separates the cream from the clowns.

A year ago, Anaheim got off to a miserable 6-14 start. That was easily forgotten when the Angels ended up winning a team record 99 games. The Minnesota Twins started 5-5 before getting hot and winning the AL Central. A fast start is preferred, of course, but isn’t necessary for success. After all, it’s not the first racehorse out of the gate but the one that crosses the finish line.

One year ago Tampa Bay started 3-0 and in first place ahead of the Yankees. That was on the way to 106 losses, the most in baseball. The Cleveland Indians began 2002 like a thunderbolt, starting 11-1, which preceded a 1-15 run. Last April the White Sox began 15-7 and the Mariners went 18-8 in April, but both failed to make the playoffs.

Here’s a look at some early surprises.

Kansas City: The Royals went 62-100 last year, yet got off to a sizzling 11-1 start. KC is devoid of star power and recognizable names, with the exception of Mike Sweeney. The first baseman was edged by Manny Ramirez last season for the batting title after hitting .340 with 23 homers. Sweeney and 3B Joe Randa are solid veterans off to good starts, but little-known players such as DH Ken Harvey, C Brent Mayne and LF Raul Ibanez have been crushing the ball. Sweeney will keep hitting, but will the others?

The Royals turnaround has been a result of a young hard throwing pitching staff led by Runelvys Hernandez (age 22), Miguel Asencio (22), and lefties Chris George (23) and Jeremy Affeldt (23). Three weeks into the season Kansas City’s offense was hitting .280, while opponents were hitting just .222.

The youth movement might remind KC fans of the young staff that led the 1985 Royals to the World Series title (Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt, Mark Gubicza, Bud Black and Danny Jackson). The Royals have played six games against light-hitting Cleveland and five with punchless Detroit. This week begins a stretch against the Twins, Blue Jays and Red Sox, who can all hit.

Montreal: Like KC, the Expos moved into first place in the NL East because of pitching (2.10 staff ERA during its 9-5 start). Montreal lacks depth (and money), but they’ve played well because of young starters Javier Vazquez, Tomo Ohka, Zach Day, Tony Armas, Jr. and new closer Rocky Biddle.

Just as impressive has been the schedule, as Montreal ripped through the Braves, Mets and Cubs on an early 10-game road trip. Leadoff hitter Jose Vidro and star slugger Vladimir Guerrero lead a young offense that ran off sweeps of Atlanta and New York during a seven-game winning streak. One wonders how good the Expos would be if they hadn’t traded Bartolo Colon?

Chicago Cubs: A new attitude from manager Dusty Baker, along with a crop of talented young arms, has the Cubbies off to a fine start. In 2002, the Cubs started 8-17 on the way to a 67-95 record. The young starting pitching of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and 21-year old Carlos Zambrano is the envy of many clubs. The quartet could all end up in the Top 10 in the NL in strikeouts.

After three weeks the Cubs were holding opponents to a .211 batting average, while the offense was hitting .290. Moises Alou is off to a hot start, taking pressure off Sammy Sosa. A big surprise has been 6-5, 240-pound Hee Seop Choi, a first baseman from South Korea. The lad can hit and appears to like Wrigley Field as much as Chicago loves the Cubbies.

 

Pittsburgh: The Pirates signed two outfielders from the NL champion Giants in CF Kenny Lofton and RF Reggie Sanders. Both are off to good starts, which has helped get the Pirates off on the right foot. The other pleasant surprise has been Kris Benson, a former No. 1 draft pick out of Clemson, who is healthy and off to a brilliant start.

Benson appears free from elbow difficulties and has combined with NL newcomer Jeff Suppan (3-0 start, 1.40 ERA) and last year’s solid starters Josh Fogg and Kip Wells to give Pittsburgh an impressive young staff. Last April, the Pirates spent 19 days in first place before folding fast in a 72-89 season.

Fast starts can be deceptive. Roster depth, a quick start against bad teams, and health all factor into a team’s success or failure during the long season. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ride a winning streak in progress.