© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
The 2012 season is but a baby, too young for panic or pats on the back. We should not assume anything we've seen has standing or stability.
"You don't take anything for granted in this game," Rangers manager Ron Washington said, "because it'll bite you."
But now that we've bitten off roughly 10 percent of the season, here are 10 takeaways from what we've witnessed to date:
1. The Red Sox have hit bottom ... or so they hope.
"Bottom" was, of course, the word Bobby Valentine used to describe his team's lowly state, before adding, "If this isn't bottom, we'll find some new ends to the earth."
The Red Sox are 12-30 in their last 42 games, dating to Sept. 1 of last year, and it all comes down to poor pitching. The staff ERA in that span is over 6.00. Clay Buchholz has struggled in his return from last year's back issues. And the bullpen has been abysmal -- an 8.06 ERA, with purported closer Mark Melancon already dispatched to Triple-A.
Clearly, there are issues here that are too big to be ignored, even in April. And they are bigger than Valentine, though he hasn't helped matters much with some questionable in-game decisions and the needless Kevin Youkilis controversy. But Boston still has plenty of time to catch up to the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays and, yes, even the Orioles, all of whom have been successful, if a bit uneven, in the early going.
2. The Braves, meanwhile, have shaken off September.
Atlanta's collapse last year didn't inspire sweeping changes or off-the-record revelations of poor clubhouse behavior. And the aftermath of that anguish has been pretty smooth, especially when compared to the furor in Fenway.
Jason Heyward (.305 average, .878 OPS) has swung the bat well, as hoped, and Brandon Beachy (one earned run allowed in 19 1/3 innings) has been one of the best starters in the big leagues. And Tim Hudson should be back soon to take over the rotation spot vacated by a struggling Jair Jurrjens.
3. Matt Kemp is a monster.
Kemp warned us this was coming when he told reporters they had "created a monster" after he finished second in the National League MVP Award balloting last year, but even Kemp must be a little amazed at what he's accomplished in the early going (.460 average, .514 on-base percentage, .952 slugging percentage, nine homers and 22 RBIs -- all league leads).
But Kemp better slow down with the power pace and start swiping some bags if he wants to reach his goal of 50 homers and 50 stolen bases. As it is, he's in line for about 90 homers and 10 stolen bases. Either way, that's pretty monstrous. And Kemp is one reason -- a big one -- why the surprising Dodgers have vaulted themselves into first place in the NL West with a 13-4 record.
4. The Nationals have arrived.
During Spring Training, manager Davey Johnson told reporters he would take his starting staff over any other staff in the league, including that of the vaunted Phillies.
"Their top three versus our top three, stuff-wise, we match up as good," Johnson had said.
Well, it's only a few turns through the rotation, but Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez are a combined 3-1 with a 1.42 ERA in 63 2/3 innings, while Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are 5-3 with a 2.02 ERA in 71 1/3 innings (with Lee now on the disabled list with a strained oblique). In other words, the Nats are holding their own quite well, thank you, and the quality of their starting staff is the reason it is realistic to anticipate them remaining a major factor in the NL East.
5. Injuries are, indeed, an issue with the Phillies.
Lee's oblique issue, which cropped up after he threw 10 shutout innings in an 11-inning loss, is part of a bleak issue for this aging Phillies roster. One team can only sustain so many losses of so many premier players, and Lee now joins Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on the pine.
The Phillies are averaging just 2.8 runs per game (only the Pirates are worse in that department), and there is still not an exact timetable for Utley's or Howard's return. And so the Phils rely primarily on their pitching in an improved NL East, making Lee's situation an unwelcome development for the five-time defending division champs, who began the week in last place.
6. Albert Pujols is on pace for the worst full month of his career.
And in a related development, the Angels' season of high hopes is off to a ho-hum start.
Panicking over Pujols, who is batting .246 with just a .354 slugging percentage, is silly at this stage. After all, he endured a longer homer drought from late April to late May of last year.
"I'm not going to think about and get caught up and say, 'Man, I haven't hit a home run,'" Pujols said, "because I don't get caught up in all that."
Yet the advanced numbers tell us that Pujols has swung at more pitches outside the zone than usual, and that's an indication that he's pressing to impress after signing that 10-year, $240 million contract.
He's also pressing to back up an Angels starting staff that simply hasn't been as sharp as expected. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have been strong, but Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jerome Williams have combined for a 1-5 record and an ERA of 5.67.
7. The Rangers look like a team on a mission.
Some wondered whether the Rangers would recover from their Game 6 collapse, but, then again, people wondered whether they'd recover from losing the 2010 World Series and losing Lee to free agency, too.
Fact is, the Rangers remain an elite club with a deep and balanced lineup (including Josh Hamilton, looking like an early American League MVP Award candidate) and a pitching staff loaded with weapons. Until they falter or somebody else proves otherwise, they are the team to beat in the AL, and teams have had a great deal of trouble trying to beat them here in April. They're 13-4.
"We know we're a very good team, and the league knows we're a very good team," second baseman Ian Kinsler said, "and we just need to keep proving that every day."
8. Don't hand the Tigers the AL Central crown yet.
No team was a more popular pick to run away with its division, but the Tigers have not been able to outhit all their deficiencies on defense, and Doug Fister's absence from the rotation remains indefinite.
By year's end, we're fairly confident the current power outage endured by Prince Fielder (he hasn't homered since the second game of the season) and Miguel Cabrera (he has just four RBIs over his last 13 games) will prove to be a blip on the radar, and the Tigers remain the odds-on favorite to win the Central.
But in the early going, the White Sox have been better than advertised (and Philip Humber was way
better than advertised Saturday), and the Indians have, surprisingly, had the most productive offense in the division.
9. The D-backs lead the league in ibuprofen.
Has any team had to endure more in the DL department these last few weeks than the defending NL West champs? They lost Chris Young, who was one of the hottest hitters in the big leagues, to a shoulder injury, and Justin Upton had been slowed by a bum thumb. And now No. 2 starter Daniel Hudson is out with a shoulder impingement.
All this serves to test the depth of the D-backs, though better to deal with such things now than late in the year. Still, the D-backs have to hope they're not simply snake-bitten this season, because they have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NL, provided that talent remains on the field.
10. The Cardinals were not a fluke.
They won the World Series, and now they've won their first six series (counting the one-game "series" against the Marlins on Opening Night) to start the season.
Pujols left, and so did Tony La Russa. Chris Carpenter is out indefinitely. Adam Wainwright has struggled. Lance Berkman injured his calf, and Jon Jay tweaked his shoulder. And yet the Cardinals just keep chugging along, showing that the aggressive Reds and the defending division champion Brewers have their work cut out for them.
That's primarily because Carlos Beltran has made a seamless transition to St. Louis, David Freese has proven to be more than a one-month wonder and Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn have been three of the league's best starters.
But if we know one thing for certain from the first 10 percent of the season, it's that all the above results are subject to change.