Three surprise teams from first quarter of baseball season

May 22, 2012 3:10 AM

Time to break down three surprise teams from the first quarter of the 2012 baseball season – the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers.

LA Dodgers

Owners of the best record in the major leagues; 28-13 through 41 games following a three game sweep over St. Louis this past weekend. LA’s run differential (+45) ranks third in baseball behind the St. Louis and Texas.

The Dodgers also rank No. 2 in baseball in profitability, behind only Baltimore. The return has been more than 13 units of profit for their supporters. This team was lined right around the .500 mark in projected wins (between 80½ and 81½) depending on where you shopped. Last year, LA was 82-79.

LA managed to accomplish this level of success despite losing a couple of key bats to injuries, most notably last year’s MVP runner-up Matt Kemp – team leader in home runs, batting average, runs scored and OPS. Kemp has been out with a lingering hamstring injury, ending MLB’s longest streak of consecutive games played.

Second baseman Mark Ellis underwent emergency surgery to remove pressure on his left leg this past weekend and is expected to be out for the next six weeks. With Juan Uribe, Juan Rivera and Jerry Hairston Jr all languishing on the DL right now, depth is not a strong point.

No team wins better than two out of three over a 40+ game span without quality pitching. Clayton Kershaw’s early season success is no surprise – he won the Cy Young Award last year with a 21-5 record and a 2.28 ERA while allowing less than a baserunner per inning. Opposing hitters haven’t figured Kershaw out in 2012 either – he’s got a 1.90 ERA and LA has won seven times in his nine trips to the hill.

The big surprises in this rotation have been Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano, a pair of guys I called “tired retreads” in my NL preview article less than two months ago.

Lilly had a 4.10 career ERA; with a 125-110 win/loss record for his career coming into the season. But Lilly has allowed only nine earned runs in his first 45.1 innings of work over seven starts, with LA going 6-1 in those games.

Capuano entered the season with a 4.29 career ERA. Both the Brewers and Mets essentially gave up on him over the past two years. Capuano has been nothing short of stellar, riding a string of six quality starts into the new week with a 2.34 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 50 innings of work.

LA’s early success isn’t going to continue unless they Lilly and Capuano keep overachieving compared to their career averages. With a spotty bullpen behind them – six blown saves already – it’s going to take more than just starting pitching to keep LA making money for their supporters.

With a 19-4 record at Dodgers Stadium thus far, compared to 9-9 on the highway, there’s no question that some home cookin’ and a relatively weak slate of opponents have helped. As the schedule inevitably gets tougher, look for the Dodgers to come back to earth.

Cleveland

The Indians were only a half game behind Detroit at the All Star break last year, but they were unable to maintain their record following the break. The Tribe still finished in second place in the division at 80-82, but the betting markets didn’t expect much improvement here in 2012, lining the Indians right around 79 wins for the current campaign. But Manny Acta’s squad has exceeded early season expectations.

The Indians enter the new week in first place, 2½ games ahead of the White Sox and three up on Detroit. They currently rank No. 6 in all of baseball in profitability, making money for their supporters.

Cleveland certainly can’t match LA’s star power, nor can they equal the Dodgers attendance. The Tribe rank dead last in fan support despite their hot start, drawing less than 16,000 attendees per game, while the Dodgers rank in the top quartile of the league, averaging more than 39,000. And the Tribe’s – 4 run differential through the first quarter of the campaign is another bad sign.

Cleveland, like LA, has enjoyed the benefits of an easy early slate of opponents, beating up on the likes of the Royals, A’s, Twins, Angels and Mariners; 14-5 against those struggling squads. When asked to step up in class, we’ve seen Cleveland come up short in recent series against the Red Sox and Marlins.

Rookie second baseman Jason Kipnis leads the team in runs scored, homers, RBI’s and stolen bases; on a pace he’ll be hard pressed to maintain. The supporting cast – leading hitter Asdrubal Cabrera, lead-off batter Shin-Soo Choo, middle of the order sluggers Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner, and recent signee Johnny Damon – don’t scare opposing pitchers the way Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier do for LA.

The Indians have been overachieving in the pitching department as well. The Braves dumped Derek Lowe following his 17 loss, 5.05 ERA season in 2011. With only 15 strikeouts in more than 58 innings of work this year, Lowe isn’t missing many bats, meaning his 2.15 ERA and 6-2 record aren’t likely to continue at this pace for much longer.

Ace Ubaldo Jimenez and No. 2 starter Justin Masterson have both struggled repeatedly from the get-go this year, and there’s not much upside with bottom of the rotation starters Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister (filling in for the injured Josh Tomlin).

The bullpen behind the starters has overachieved dramatically, helping the Indians to a 9-2 record in games decided by a single run – best in the majors. That’s not going to continue indefinitely.

Milwaukee

The reigning NL Central champion Brewers have been awful, sitting in fifth place in arguably the weakest division in baseball. The Brewers went 30-18 in one run games last year and had an MLB best 57-24 record at Miller Park in Milwaukee – true home field dominance.

This year, they’re off to a sub .500 start at home while going a modest 6-6 through their first dozen one run decisions. The betting markets weren’t high on this team coming into the campaign, lining a 96 win team from last year in the 84.5/85 range for 2012.

So far, those betting markets have been 100% correct in their negative assessment of Ron Roenike’s squad. Milwaukee can’t blame injuries for their early season struggles.

Their big bats are hitting – Ryan Braun and Corey Hart have 20 dingers between them and catcher Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed a breakout seven RBI game in his first shot in the cleanup spot.

But the Brewers aren’t getting contributions from many of their role players. Offseason acquisition Aramis Ramirez is hitting .218, slugger Ricky Weeks is batting .154. Key top of the order sparkplug Nyjer Morgan and Gonzalez’s replacement Cesar Izturis are both ice cold as well.

Still, the Brewers rank in the Top 5 in the Nationa League in runs scored this year. Their tremendous decline from last season comes largely in the pitching department.

This year, only Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum have been effective starters, and the bullpen has completely fallen apart; ranked 29 out of 30 big league teams in earned run average.

Unless the Brewers can find some pitching help between now and the trading deadline, their early season slump is likely to continue.