Tigers, Reds, Rangers rate
biggest early surprises

May 4, 2004 12:11 AM

April is gone and the first month of the baseball season is in the record books.

As is often the case, there have been many surprises. The revamped Anaheim offense has been strong with Vladimir Guerrero joining a powerful lineup that won the World Series two years ago, while the New York Yankees powerful lineup has been a dud until the past few days.

The Detroit Tigers’ improved defense and offense has them playing far better than last year’s 119-loss club, while the defending champion Marlins have picked up right where they left off in October.

What stands out is that several of those teams were very bad last season. The Reds lost 93 games, the Tigers 119, the Rangers 91 and the Brewers 94. This is not 2003, however.

DETROIT: The young pitching staff is a year older after getting thrown to the wolves last summer. Experience is the best teacher. The Tigers played hard for coach Alan Trammel in 2003 (remember they went 5-1 to end the regular season), but simply didn’t have a lot of talent.

The Tigers’ offense is improved with the additions of Rondell White (5 HRs), Carlos Guillen and World Series hero catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Last weekend they scored 17 runs in a win over Cleveland and have topped 10 runs four times. Last season, they scored in double digits only three times in 162 games, and not once before the All Star break.

CINCINNATI: The success of the surprising Reds is a bit more difficult to explain. In the 16-team National League, Cincinnati is ranked 13th with a .250 team batting average, 12th in ERA (4.95) and 12th in fielding. Yet, they’ve been winning. They’ve already had nine victories by two runs or less, but will that continue?

TEXAS: The Rangers lead the AL in hitting, which was not unexpected, but their pitching has been a big surprise, ranking 3rd (4.31 ERA). Winning baseball, like successful sports wagering, is not about hot or cold streaks, but about consistency over the long haul.

Some of those duds are not surprising.

The exodus of talented players has caught up with the Expos. The Mets and Indians are rebuilding, while the Royals are a small market team that surprised early last season, but fell fast after the All Star break.

However, the Mariners, Yankees, Blue Jays, Phillies and Cardinals were all expected to be good but have disappointed. Philadelphia was the favorite (4-to-5) to win the NL East before the season, yet has struggled to score (11th in hitting in the NL) despite plenty of offensive talent. Their offensive struggles are nothing compared to the Blue Jays and Yankees, who are at the bottom of the AL in hitting.

NY YANKEES: New York has an offensive line-up for the ages ”” on paper ”” but they started poorly until going on a winning streak after getting swept at home by the Red Sox. Still, with pitching staffs in the middle of the pack, the Yanks and Toronto have struggled and have been money-burners at the betting window. Incidentally, the Yanks have the most errors and the worst fielding percentage in the AL.

SEATTLE: The offense (.261 batting average) and pitching have been poor. The Mariners have a 5.32 team ERA, second to last in the AL. Considering they play in a large, pitcher-friendly park, that’s definitely cause for concern. On the other hand, it’s still early and there’s plenty of time for talented teams to fix their weaknesses. After all, baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.