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Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: April 29, 11:24 PM ET
Myth vs. reality -- April edition

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

We're three weeks into another fun-filled baseball season. And here's what we know:

Matt Kemp has a chance to be pretty good. … In Justin Verlander's next commercial shoot, he'll be debuting his Philip Humber impression. … And we don't recommend you start saving loose change for your 2012 Cubs World Series tickets.

But what else do we know -- really know -- about where this season is heading? That's what Rumblings and Grumblings is here to help with. So it's time for this year's April Guide to Myth or Reality.

Boston Red Sox

Record: 8-10, team ERA: 6.08, bullpen ERA: 6.79

Good thing the past few days came along, huh? Once the Red Sox were allowed to stop playing the Tigers, Rangers and Yankees every day, it's amazing how blood-pressure readings started sinking all over New England.

Clearly, this offense will put up some hefty numbers, and that always helps. The Red Sox already have scored in double figures five times. The entire National League West has done it once. But that doesn't mean all of this team's early-season issues were an April mirage.

There's that bullpen (94 baserunners in 54 1/3 IP). Asked whether this could be a playoff team with this relief crew, one scout's pithy reply was: "No way."

There's that outfield, minus the injured Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. "They've got all extra outfielders playing every day," another scout said.

And there's that apparent disconnect between Bobby Valentine and his clubhouse. "I'm not sure it's fixable," said a third scout, "because Bobby's not going to change. But the game has changed. Players have changed. The manager's got to adjust to the players now. But these are players who won a couple of world championships without Bobby V. I'm not sure they're ever going to buy in."

So the verdict: REALITY. This might be exactly what the 2012 Red Sox are.

Philadelphia Phillies

Record: 9-10; scored two runs or fewer eight times in 17 games

They're already 5 games out in a division they've gotten used to dominating. They've already had more three-game losing streaks (two) than they had in their first 56 games last year (one). And the Braves just scored almost as many runs in a week (62) as the Phillies have scored all season (63).

So how much of this is "reality"? There's a lot of division on that topic.

One scout who covers the NL East called the Phillies' offense "horrendous." And it's hard to dispute his reasoning -- that the whole lineup does too much hacking at pitchers' pitches. The Phillies rank near the bottom of the sport in walks (only 37 in 19 games), pitches per plate appearance (just 3.69) and swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (33.6 percent).

But one NL executive was far from ready to write off a team with pitching this good. "Can any team in baseball survive losing its No. 3 and 4 hitters [Chase Utley, Ryan Howard], and be productive?" he asked. "Not just this team. Any team. So if this is real, it's only real until the right side of their infield gets back."

Still, the NL East is better. The Phillies are older. And they've stripped their system of prospects with all those blockbuster deals they've made. "Let's face it," another NL exec said. "They can't afford any more injuries whatsoever. And that's pretty tough, when you've got almost 150 games left."

Obviously, their pitching figures to keep them out of the intensive-care ward. Nevertheless, the verdict here is … REALITY. The road to October looks awfully precarious for a team this beat up and offensively challenged.

Los Angeles Angels

Record: 6-13, 9 games out, .301 team OBP

The Angels won't be happy to hear this. But it's possible they've already eliminated themselves in the American League West. It took them 19 games to plummet nine games back of Texas, and no team in the division-play era has found itself that far out at the end of April and charged back to finish first.

The upbeat news for the Angels is this: Their rotation is still great. Albert Pujols will remember how to hit. And Mike Trout is ready for the big time any time the big time is ready for him.

But everyone we surveyed set off flashing lights over a bullpen that has blown five of its first six save opportunities and was the last team in either league to record a save. Consider these not-so-rave reviews:

"Their bullpen is a mess." … "They've got major issues at the back end of the game." … "They don't really have a bullpen. There's not one guy down there I'd trust."

It's hard to envision that the Angels won't address this "mess" somehow. But until they do, our verdict is: REALITY in that bullpen, MYTH everywhere else.

Washington Nationals

Record: 14-5, rotation ERA of 1.61

Bet you didn't know that only one other team from our nation's capital has ever started a season this hot. And that was so long ago (1932), Walter Johnson managed it.

Those '32 Washington Senators gave up the fewest runs in their league. And if there's a reason to believe in Washington's 2012 team, it's that this staff might be capable of the same sort of domination.

"I think it's real," one scout said. "Their starting pitching is really good. And when you've got that kind of starting pitching and you've got so much depth in the bullpen that you can lose the closer [Drew Storen] and you've got a guy who throws like 160 miles an hour [Henry Rodriguez] to replace him, you're going to win a lot of games."

Now obviously, this team isn't going to play .737 baseball all season. And not everybody is sold on an offense that has swung and missed more than any other team in the league. ("A lot of athletes," one scout said. "Not enough contact.")

But the biggest concern was expressed by an NL exec who said: "I think they're for real until they make the predetermined decision to shut the ace down -- and then they're going to come back to normal."

Yessir, no telling how it will affect this group when the Nationals pull the plug on Stephen Strasburg in September. But since they haven't shut him down yet, the verdict on this team is: REALITY -- for now.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Record: 13-6, opponent average vs. pitching staff: .217

They went 9-1 in their first 10 games. They went 12-3 in their first 15. Something wild and crazy always happens in the NL West. And it's tempting to conclude that this year's wild and crazy development is this team.

But even though the Dodgers are more games over .500 than they've been in a year and a half, and Kemp is on pace to hit 85 homers and win the octuple crown, the rest of the sport is in wait-and-see mode.

"They've played most of their games against San Diego, Pittsburgh and Houston," one NL executive said. "So you tell me how real this is."

"They spent the first two weeks of the season in Southern California, playing some really bad teams," said an NL scout. "And that's a nice way to get some momentum going. But in the long run, I don't think their rotation's that deep beyond [Clayton] Kershaw. And their lineup's not that deep. You're going to start to see pitchers pitching around Kemp and [Andre] Ethier, and there's not much support around them."

But we need to remember something, said another NL executive: The Dodgers don't play in the NL East or AL East. They play in an exceptionally winnable division. So we'll let him read the verdict: "REAL -- because they play in the NL West."

Toronto Blue Jays

Record: 10-9, opponent average vs. pitching staff: .232

There's been a buzz about this team since the Blue Jays pulled into exotic Dunedin, Fla. And despite their messy sweeperoo this week in Baltimore, this remains a very intriguing team whose arrow is definitely pointing up.

"I like their club," one exec said. "They've vastly improved that club. They're going in the right direction. I'm not saying they're going to win the division. But they're making a lot of headway. And they've got a ton of good young players in the minor leagues."

The Blue Jays run so many young works-in-progress out there, they're probably the toughest team on this list to evaluate. Their rotation features three pitchers younger than 25 (Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison) who have made a total of 37 big league starts. No one in their lineup is older than 31. And they're hunting diligently for another masher and another top-of-the-rotation arm. So they could easily get better as the season rampages along.

Their biggest current worry, however, is that their new closer, Sergio Santos, just headed for the disabled list (inflamed shoulder) -- and his replacement, Francisco Cordero, "really isn't a closer anymore," one scout said.

But in a division in which the Yankees and Red Sox both have issues, the Blue Jays are a team nobody should ignore. The verdict from one scout: "I think they're for REAL. I might have gotten a little ahead of myself on how good their young players are. But I think they'll be a fun team to watch. I don't know if it's all going to kick in the way I thought in spring training. But they should go by the Red Sox."

Tweets of the week

From "Late Show" tweeting genius @EricStangel, after last weekend's Fenway 100th-birthday bash went slightly amiss:

Red Sox have once again invited all former players back to Fenway, this time for tryouts... #yankees

— Eric Stangel (@EricStangel) April 22, 2012

Many of us have taken a stab at those Kate Upton/Philip Humber quips in the past week. Nobody pulled it off better than the always-amusing Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG), Gar Ryness:

Things will get awkward if @Philip_Humber mails game tape to 2KSports & demands $1million.

— Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG) April 22, 2012

Headliner of the week

And this just in, from the Boston edition of The Heckler:

FENWAY CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION MARRED BY
IMPROMPTU DRAMA OF RED SOX TITANIC REENACTMENT