Tigers topping early
list of surprise clubs

Apr 20, 2004 5:53 AM

More than any other sport, baseball is a game of patience. After the first two weeks of play, the division leaders were the Tigers, Devil Rays, A’s in the AL and the Reds, Marlins, Giants in the NL.

Had the playoffs started, that would certainly have offered several major surprises. Last year the Reds lost 93 games, the Devil Rays lost 99 and the Tigers lost 119! While the playoffs don’t start this week, it does shed light on the how important patience is over the long haul of a 162-game schedule. It also shows how surprises can emerge and offer smart bettors terrific value for their wagering dollar.

The Tigers were a +240 dog in the opener against reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. No problem. Detroit gets the money in a 7-0 rout. The Tigers went on to sweep the Blue Jays at Toronto as +190 and +160 dogs the next two games, outscoring the Jays 20-6!

This is not the 119-loss team from a year ago, which has offered smart bettors great value. The Tigers upgraded their young pitching staff with former Orioles right-hander Jason Johnson. Detroit promptly made the 30-year old Johnson the opening day starter, which took some pressure off the rest of the young staff. It was Johnson who outpitched Halladay opening day.

The Tigers also improved their infield defense and offense considerably, adding 2B Fernando Vina, SS Carlos Guillen and World Series hero catcher Ivan Rodriguez. All three are off to terrific starts both at the plate and in the field.

However, it isn’t always the first racehorse out of the gate that crosses the finish line. It’s a long summer, and over the course of 162 games, the cream will rise to the top. A year ago, the Devil Rays topped Pedro Martinez in Lou Piniella’s first game”¦ on the way to 99 losses. The 2003 Pirates started 7-3, but couldn’t keep up that .700 winning percentage on the way to a 75-87 season.

This is why depth in baseball, especially pitching depth, is so important. Pitchers are fragile and more likely to get hurt. With pitching such an essential and rare commodity, one or two pitching injuries can change the fortunes of a team.

The Astros had an injury to ace pitcher Roy Oswalt last season, and ended up missing the playoffs by one game. It’s no surprise Houston aggressively worked to shore up its starting pitching depth over the winter, adding Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte (the latter is currently hurt).

The Cubs went to the 1998 playoffs with young ace Kerry Wood leading the way. In 1999, Wood was on the shelf the whole season after elbow surgery. Chicago missed the playoffs with a dismal 67-95 mark. You can see why Cubs fans have been so concerned opening this season without last year’s ace Mark Prior, who has arm trouble.

Sustaining a surprise start requires improved talent, depth, lineup balance and good health. A crop of talented young players from the farm system can be a huge plus. In 2003, the Florida Marlins rode a slew of hot young arms — Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano — to the World Series title.

A year ago, the White Sox added ace pitcher Bartolo Colon to a talented team and got off to an 11-6 start, but missed the playoffs in a disappointing campaign. Some other teams that last season got off to great starts but failed to make the postseason: The Royals started 17-4 and the Mariners started 40-18. The Diamondbacks endured a roller coaster ride in 2003, starting 3-11, battling to 52-42 at the All Star break, only to miss the playoffs.

A team’s health is something that can’t be controlled, but needs to be followed. Serious sports bettors need to keep up on injuries daily. Center field and shortstop are key defensive positions. Teams and certain pitchers can be at a disadvantage if they lose a great defensive shortstop for a below average fielder, for example. Bettors need to track injuries and understand what the relationship to the team might be when attempting to project a winner or locating wagering value.

There was never a better example of the long haul of a baseball season than a year ago. The Marlins started 2-6 and 19-29 and ended up as World Series champions. That gives hope to those teams that are off to struggling starts, and should provide caution to teams that are in first place. After all, it’s only April!