Pirates are the biggest surprise thus far
Now that we're past the halfway point of the season, it's time to examine the biggest surprises and disappointments of 2011.
Let's start by looking back at my predicted division winners, coming out of Spring Training:
AL East -- Boston
AL Central -- Detroit
AL West -- Texas
NL East -- Philadelphia
NL Central: Milwaukee
NL West: Colorado
To this point, my picks are pretty much where I thought they would be, with each team leading or sharing the lead -- the one glaring disappointment being the Colorado Rockies.
For me they are hands down the biggest disappointment thus far, sitting 9½ games out of first place in the NL West. That would be a whole different story if the NL West had a team that was playing great baseball, but San Francisco leads the division with a 56-41 record and an offense that is anything but potent.
The Giants are winning for the same reasons they won last year -- pitching, pitching and more pitching. Ubaldo Jimenez, the Rockies' best pitcher a year ago, isn't even close to the guy who won 15 of his first 16 decision in 2010. So far this season, Jimenez is 5-8 with a 4.08 ERA. His fastball is down around 90 mph way more often that it is around 98 or 99 mph, as it was last year.
The loss of Jorge De La Rosa was huge to this team. Jhoulys Chacin probably has been their best pitcher and he is 8-7 with a 3.37 ERA. The one bright spot in the pitching has been closer Huston Street, who has converted 26 of 28 save opportunities. They simply need to get him more opportunities. Statistically, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales also are down from last year. The Rockies traditionally have been a second-half team, but I don't know if they have the pitching to come from 9½ games back.
As for my surprise team so far, that's simple. Ninety-four games into the season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are six games over .500 and in first place in the NL Central. It's a classic example of how a manager can make a difference in the way a team carries itself. I know Clint Hurdle, and I will say this: He can make a team play and feel better than they actually are because he goes beyond the "glass is half-full" with his approach.
That approach can work and work well with young players, and that is why I think Hurdle has gotten so much out of this team. He has the ability to get youth to believe. I don't think Hurdle would have made that kind of impact on a veteran team. By the time players get five or six years in the Majors, they might have a tendency to look at their team and say, "We can't compete with these other teams."
That is not the case in Pittsburgh. I think Hurdle will be the guy to get the Pirates over the 18-year hurdle of being below .500. Do I think they will win the division? No, I don't. But I do believe they will finish above .500.
I believe that all of the teams I picked out of spring training will win their divisions, save the Rockies.
As for my World Series picks, I'm sticking with the Red Sox and Phillies with the Red Sox winning, unless the Phillies are able to land a big right-handed bat to hit behind Ryan Howard.
Mitch Williams is an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.