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Unlikely leaders remain on top

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April 28

Of the teams with the first four picks in the upcoming June draft, three of them began the last weekend in April in first place. Phillies, Cubs and Twins. The two American League teams that had the best records in 2000 -- the A's and White Sox -- were 11 and 9 games out of first place, respectively, and 7½ games behind wild-card leader Toronto. None of the three NL division winners from a year ago -- the Braves, Cardinals and Giants -- are above .500 and the pennant-winning Mets are in last place in the NL East.

"This is Bud Selig's worst nightmare, and Don Fehr's dream come true," says one big-market executive. "This is the last thing Selig wanted when he's about to plead poverty to the union. Now Don will give him his 'let 'em eat cake' routine. When the Phillies and Twins are in first place and the Mets, Yankees and Braves combined are seven games under .500, it's hard to argue fiscal disparity. Insanity might be a better plea."

Matt Lawton
Despite their fast start, don't be surprised if the Twins trade Matt Lawton at some point this season.

It is very early, far too cool to be dreaming of a Baggydome-Vet World Series; in fact, since the Twins and Phils each have the third worst attendance in their respective leagues, it's safe to say not many people in those environs have even thought about that notion.

One can look at Oakland's struggles, then realize they could lose Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen to free agency next season and appreciate that even the best and most creative organizations are faced with tremendous odds against building a team that can keep its window open for more than a season or two, much less ever have the veteran depth necessary to go deep into October.

If you take the top 11 payrolls, as of Saturday, only two -- the Braves and Mets -- have losing records; three are in first place; and four of the five best records in the American League are in that top 11. If you take the 11 lowest payrolls, two are in first place and eight have losing records.

This isn't to say that the Cubs, Phillies or Twins will all fade away, because they likely won't. Like the White Sox last season or the Reds the year before, young teams can get hot at the beginning of the season, clear hurdles in the second month and by Memorial Day have established their self-esteem to the point where they ride a wave of belief.

"It seems as if there's often one team that one way or another gets through situations that are supposed to be insurmountable and keep rolling," says Minnesota's Denny Hocking, whom Royals manager Tony Muser calls "the best 10th man in the game." Wednesday night was one of those times when the Twins hung in and rallied in the ninth and 10th innings to win a game started by Pedro Martinez. "Sure, we lost two out of three in Boston," says Torii Hunter, "but the way we kept from being swept in a place where we usually have trouble is what we took out of there."

They took away Martinez's statement that "Minnesota is the best team we've played this year." They took away the knowledge that they won that one game because of a remarkable play by Doug Mientkiewicz, who is an absolute magician at first base, with the range of a middle infielder. With Jason Varitek on third, Mientkiewicz made a diving catch in foul territory down the right-field line, rolled over and let the ball fly in the direction of home plate. Hocking then had the presence of mind to race across from shortstop, get in position to cut the throw off, whirl and fire to A.J. Pierzynski to nail Varitek and eventually save the game. "I love the way they play," said Red Sox manager Jimy Williams. "They do things that win games, night after night."

The question will be that once July rolls around and the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Mariners and Indians have all made stretch-drive trades, where will the Twins be and what can they do? Creatively, they might be able to trade one of their six left-handed pitchers for a veteran right-handed power hitter, then deal either Matt Lawton or Jacque Jones for whatever else they need, as long as it's not too pricey. As the Mets and Braves tinker and the teams in the Central and West re-arm, can the Phillies also go get what they need?

Here are a few observations:

  • While the Mariners have a bigger lead than they've had at any time in their history -- with or without Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and/or Alex Rodriguez -- this type of ball dates back to the first of September last season. Going into Saturday's game, the Mariners were 38-14 with a 3.54 ERA during their last two regular-season months. They also lead the league with only 10 errors.

    "They have good, consistent, five-deep starting pitching, they have a great bullpen, they catch the ball very well, they use their speed and their depth and the top four guys in the order are really good," says Muser.

    "If Pat Gillick can just find a decent five-hole hitter and perhaps a little more power somewhere else and if they stay healthy they will be tough to catch because they play so well in their park," says one AL GM.

  • The A's and White Sox have dug themselves into positions that will be tough to overcome. Oakland is already 11 games back of Seattle. The fact is that most of the key players on the A's and White Sox are very young, and this season has been their first tribulation while dealing with expectations. And don't forget the A's are doing this without Randy Velarde, who they very much miss. They had to put Terrence Long into the cleanup spot amidst these numbers: their 4-5 hitters went into Saturday hitting .225 with a .697 OPS (lower than the career number for Carlos Guillen), their DH position has contributed .213/1/4, Damon had a .278 on-base percentage and the starters that had the fourth-best ERA in the league last year have a combined 5.81 ERA this season.

    Will they hit? Of course they will, and the starters will get hot, as well, but they are very young and without experience dealing with a slump.

    "We're hitting on less than 50 percent of our cylinders," says White Sox GM Ken Williams. "When we don't hit (Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Ray Durham are batting a combined .233) and we struggle pitching, we're in trouble." Thomas is not hurt, but the ChiSox should hit. But their starting pitching, which has only four wins total -- two from David Wells -- has been a disappointment. So has the bullpen, other than closer Keith Foulke, with its 5.20 ERA.

    "Their bullpen camouflaged some starting pitching problems last year," says one AL scout. "(Kelly) Wunsch and Bobby Howry are not throwing the ball as well as they did last year, at least right now, and (Antonio) Osuna is on the DL."

  • The American League East race appears to be baseball's answer to Florida in college football, and you can match the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees with the 'Noles, Gators and Canes any way you choose. Buck Martinez has made an undeniable difference and the starting pitching has been far better, which means with a scary front six in the order -- and for those who for years have believed that Shannon Stewart is a rising leadoff star, watch the intensity as well as the numbers -- and a deep, power bullpen where Kelvim Escobar and Billy Koch could become this league's answer to Felix Rodriguez and Robb Nen. Boston's pitching is the best it has been in its three-year reign as league ERA leader; you'd have thought Derek Lowe's 10-day slump was a NASDAQ collapse, but they have so much versatility and different looks that three different relievers have combined for five saves of nine outs or more. And Carl Everett and Manny Ramirez have become a fearsome, complementary duo.

    But anyone who writes off the Yankees is being foolish. They have played terribly at times, they have shown some signs of fraying around the edges, there isn't a lot of depth (especially in the pitching) and as well as Toronto and Boston have played, the Yanks are two hot turns around the rotation from a dead heat. When the Alfonso Soriano-Pokey Reese rumors popped up this week, which the Yankees wouldn't do since they eventually see Soriano being a free-swinging, 35-homer, 40-steal guy, GM Brian Cashman said "the only thing we need right now is for Derek (Jeter), Bernie (Williams) and David Justice to all start playing as they are capable of playing. And it will happen."

    Jeter has struggled mightily in the field, his legs' afteraffect of not having played much in spring training. Are there concerns about Paul O'Neill, who isn't driving the ball to the opposite field as he does when he hits well, and Tino Martinez? Yes. The Yankees are closely monitoring some sort of productive hitter. Do they need another power right-hander in front of Mariano Rivera? Yes. Would they like another lefty like C.J. Nitkowski in the pen? Maybe, if Randy Choate isn't the anwer. But don't turn your backs on them yet.

  • There's something fascinating about the Reds. Sure, sure, Pete Harnisch has to get rolling and they're doing it with Chris Reitsma as their No. 1 starter, but they have the deep bullpen and they really haven't gotten rolling yet. If and when they get Junior Griffey healthy, Deion Sanders gives them a jolt of personality when he takes his .463, one-walk average up from Louisville Tuesday, Harnisch starts winning and they catch the ball as they should (through Friday, they were last in the league in fielding percentage), then they could be very good.

    GM Jim Bowden has been under some fire in Cincinnati of late, but there are few more creative, industrious general managers in the game. He knows he has a $45 million budget, but with it he's got a deep bullpen, a deep positional player roster and with all his trades has stockpiled a talent-laden organization that allows him to have it both ways. They can be good for years, but if they are in it come July he has the talent to trade for starting pitching if ownership lets him get to a $50 million payroll. We know the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and perhaps even the Dodgers will spend anything to get what they need, but the Reds, Blue Jays, Indians and Astros may be the four contenders with the best young talent to spare to get Albie Lopez or whatever big bat is out there.

    Which brings up an interesting question: if the Twins are in it on July 28 and GM Terry Ryan can get a cleanup thumper for two or three of his best kids like pitchers Matt Kinney and Adam Johnson, should he go for it? Oakland GM Billy Beane and Ken Williams would tell him to go for it because when you're winning on a $25 million budget, the window's going to close faster than you realize.

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