Breaking down teams' early-season success
Finally, we have baseball games that count. That means stats that count and standings that matter, and the ability to start taking those stats and standings seriously.
It also means the danger of taking those stats and standings too seriously. So consider this the debut of what should be a recurring feature in this space, taking the bits of data that we have and trying to determine just how real they are. Do you buy it?
A key rule: At this point in the season, if you have to ask whether it's too early, it's too early. It's important never to forget that. We're still working with less than five percent of a season's worth of data, and if you wouldn't draw conclusions from six or seven games in July, you shouldn't draw conclusions from six or seven games in April.
But what fun is that? There's still some information that we didn't have a week ago. As long as you don't go crazy with it, it's better to have some information than none at all. On with the assessments.
New York Mets: Some of the glee in Flushing has already given way to panic, as a 4-0 start was followed by a pair of disappointing defeats, and the team now hits the road for Philadelphia and Atlanta. There are still things to like here, though.
Even with the fences moved in at Citi Field, the Mets pitched and defended well over the first week, allowing 20 runs over six games. The most exciting thing of all is the apparent effectiveness of Johan Santana. He's unlikely to be a dominating high-innings ace again, but it's not at all hard to envision him delivering 180 rather effective innings in 2012. That would seriously bolster a rotation that already gets quality work from R.A. Dickey and Jon Niese.
The worry here is the offense. The Mets were a better hitting team last year than people thought, masked by the difficulty of their home ballpark. But with David Wright hurt and Ike Davis not looking quite right, there's some question as to what exactly the Mets have in their lineup. Lucas Duda is exciting, but he's off to a slow start as well. The Mets are in a tough division, but the more drastic negative predictions about them likely will be proven incorrect.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers had the best player and best pitcher in the National League last year, and they still managed to finish 11 1/2 games out of first place. Then they didn't really appear to get better over the winter, with the biggest changes being departures, including the exits of Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees) and Jonathan Broxton (Royals).
But that core is still there. And Chad Billingsley is only a year removed from being a very good, even No. 2-caliber starter. The bullpen is interesting, with a solid complement of quality arms. The issue here is lineup depth, with questions of some sort at virtually every non-outfield position in the starting nine.
The Dodgers have scored 4.5 runs per game while allowing three. That's how they're going to have to win; they're not going to beat opponents into submission. In a wide-open division, it's conceivable that they could stay in the mix at least for a while. One other factor to note, though: The team's six games came against the Padres and Pirates, two clubs that are not expected to have great years themselves.
Toronto Blue Jays: It's no stretch to say that the Jays are the best team on this list. In one or two of the other divisions, they might well be favored not only to make the playoffs, but to be division champion. However, they play in the meat grinder known as the American League East, so conventional wisdom says that they'll be very fortunate to squeak into an AL Wild Card spot.
The Jay are off to the right start, at least. With series wins over the Indians and Red Sox and the Orioles on tap, the first half of April is going swimmingly for Toronto. It's really not hitting especially well, but its starters and bullpen have both been effective. You know, the Jays are going to hit, and the bullpen should be quite strong. The issue is the starters, and right now, Blue Jays fans have to be happy with what they're seeing.
What remains to be seen is whether they can keep it up. Brandon Morrow has been trying for years to turn potential into consistent performance. Kyle Drabek, recently one of the game's top prospects, is hoping to build on a frustrating rookie year. They both started the year strong, and it won't be shocking if they turn in big years. Joel Carreno and Henderson Alvarez are even bigger variables behind Ricky Romero. So far, so good -- but doing it consistently won't be easy.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.