Who's for real among early winners?
Marlins, Royals, Mariners could be in it for the long haul
A fortnight does not a season make. Nor does it a contender make.But two weeks of the baseball season can make for a good first impression, and for teams that are doing it this year when very few thought they might, there's a question begging to be asked: Who's for real? We won't know until October, of course. But among the teams with potential staying power, three early surprise contenders may be poised to make some noise: the Marlins, Royals and Mariners. So, are they? For real, that is? All three have put themselves in position to show it, if they can complete their Aprils the way they've started it -- in a groove and playing good baseball. To be fair, the same could be said for the Blue Jays, and a case could be made for the Padres and their surprisingly hot start. But the Marlins, Royals and Mariners bring particular intrigue. It starts with the one thing all three have in common: pitching at the start and at the end. Each has a compelling threesome in the rotation and each has a fireballing closer ready to nail down those games that can't get away if these teams really do want to make a difference. As 2009 begins to unfold, here's a look at this interesting trio of teams that really could be for real this time (or again): MARLINS
Through two weeks: 11-1, first place, NL East
2008 record: 84-77
The Marlins held on into September last season, so Team Teal isn't exactly coming in out of the blue. NL East preseason predictions mentioned the Phillies, the Mets and some mentioned the Braves. The Marlins, not so much. Nevertheless, this team has been far and away the sharpest bunch in the division, the league and all of baseball. The Marlins are using a balanced attack that starts with Emilio Bonifacio and his cycle to get the season rolling, a rising superstar who hasn't even found his groove this season in shortstop Hanley Ramirez and starting pitching, led by Josh Johnson, that many teams envy. Their 9-1 start was the first such 10-game start in the Majors since the Yankees and Royals both did it in 2003, and they added to it for what's now a five-game lead in the NL East. "I think everybody is together," Ramirez said. "Everybody is playing as a team. It's what we've got to keep doing all year long -- stay together." For them to do that, it'll come down to the pitching as much as anything, staying healthy and staying strong. Already Ricky Nolasco is having to work through some things, but Johnson is proving his ace chops and Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad are off to good starts. Closer Matt Lindstrom is displaying some serious gas upon his return from arm problems that surfaced during the World Baseball Classic. With speed at the top, Ramirez prepared to take his rightful place as a quintessential No. 3 hitter with wheels, and hitters like Jorge Cantu and Cody Ross just flat making things happen, the Marlins certainly have the firepower to make this run a longer one than last year. ROYALS
Through two weeks: 7-5, first place, AL Central
2008 record: 75-87
As the season began, the Royals had reason for optimism. On the heels of a third-place finish last year and with a number of players well positioned to take a next step, 2009 was a welcomed opportunity. "I expect us to be in the mix down the stretch, playing for a playoff spot," Mark Teahen said before the season began. And now they're showing some signs of being serious about backing up that prediction. They took two out of three on the road against AL Central rivals Cleveland and Chicago, and they've emerged from the first fortnight in good standing. It doesn't hurt that Zack Greinke's going all Orel Hershiser on the league, either. Of these three teams, the Royals suffered the most daunting injury when third baseman Alex Gordon went out with a hip injury that required surgery. Off to a slow start, Gordon is expected to be out until at least June following surgery similar to Alex Rodriguez's, performed by the same surgeon, Dr. Marc Philippon. Even with Gordon being out until June, the Royals have the luxury of moving Teahen over to third. And they have Jose Guillen -- their top hitter from a year ago -- coming back soon, so all is not lost, offensively. Besides, as long as Greinke, who takes a 34-inning scoreless streak into his next start, is pitching every five days, offense doesn't figure to be a problem. Ditto when Gil Meche is pitching. Or Kyle Davies. At least so far. And when it all comes down to it, getting a lead to Joakim Soria (4-for-4 in save opportunities) is a good target to have, and an improved bullpen -- the most veteran area of the club -- figures to help. MARINERS
Through two weeks: 8-5, first place, AL West
2008 record: 61-101
This figured to be a year of change, with Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu taking over as GM and manager, respectively. And change wound up including the familiar, with Ken Griffey Jr. creating a buzz not felt in Seattle in a few years without the aid of highly caffeinated beverages. Based on payroll and veteran presence, the Mariners might not belong in the same conversation as the Marlins and Royals. From the standpoint of needing to get off to a good start if they had any hope of recovering from a disastrous 2008 season, they are in a whole different universe than those other two. As with the other clubs, pitching has been key, and Erik Bedard -- the lefty hoping to leave his '08 Seattle debut behind -- has been nothing short of brilliant, striking out 23 while walking just three through his first three starts. Felix Hernandez appears ready to step up to King status, showing no signs of trouble from his World Baseball Classic work with Venezuela. With Jarrod Washburn partying like it's 2002 and Brandon Morrow reaching for his high ceiling as a closer, the Mariners are boasting the best ERA in the American League after ranking 12th in the league last year. With the franchise's two biggest superstars in the same outfield now and its biggest free agency acquisition -- third baseman Adrian Beltre -- hoping to build off a rebound 2008, there are tools in Seattle. With the Angels losing Vladimir Guerrero for an extended period of time, the AL West could be a little more ripe for the picking than in recent years. Now all they need to do is turn two weeks' work into a season, and they'll have something.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.