Monday April 13th, 2009

This spring Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi sat in the dugout at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., and talked about the reality of competing in the monster truck series that is the American League East. "We're realistic," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "We have a lot of young kids. Some of them will get their [butts] handed to them, but that's part of the process."

The sun shone brightly on Ricciardi that morning, but even he couldn't have guessed it would keep shining on him and his team right through the start of the season. After one week of play the Blue Jays, one of only four teams yet to make the postseason in the wild-card era, boast the best record in the American League and sit atop a division that contains arguably the three best teams in baseball: the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

If the Blue Jays were the only surprise team thus far, it would be easy to ignore them. But one week into the new season baseball has gone bizarro. Again. While the Tampa Bay Rays' stunning turnaround dominated the 2008 season, 2009 is already dropping hints that another unlikely playoff participant could be in the offing.

It's far too soon to draw any significant parallels to last season, but if we can't glance at the top of the standings and deduce which teams will bring their fans a championship in October, we can at least figure out which teams have found a way to give those fans reason to keep watching, at least for a little while longer.

Only one of last year's six division winners -- the Rays, White Sox, Angels, Phillies, Cubs and Dodgers -- has started '09 the way it finished '08 -- which is to say, in first. (The White Sox entered Tuesday tied for the AL Central lead with the Royals.) The other five have been usurped by six teams -- the Blue Jays, Mariners, Marlins, Braves, Cardinals and Padres (Florida and Atlanta are tied in the NL East) -- that finished a combined 110 games out of first a year ago. Only one current division leader (the Marlins) finished higher than fourth, while three teams finished last, including the 101-loss Mariners and the 99-loss Padres. By comparison, at this time last year, two defending division champions (the Angels and Diamondbacks) were in first place and two first-place teams (the Angels and White Sox) would go on to win their respective divisions.

Here's a quick look at those seven surprise clubs, and why they've managed to get off to such a quick start.

Record: 6-2 Lead: ½ game Why: Pitching was the biggest concern in Toronto this spring, while the offense that finished 11th in runs scored was treated more like a fluke than a worrisome trend. "We shouldn't be 11th in anything," hitting coach Gene Tenace said at the time. Through eight games the Jays lead the majors with 54 runs overall and 6.8 per game. Designated hitter Adam Lind has been the biggest contributor thus far, with three home runs and a major league-best 12 RBIs.

Record: 4-3 Lead: ½ game Last season 162 games were not enough to decide an AL Central champion, and it may be that way again this year. With four teams clustered within a game and a half of each other, this is the tightest division in baseball thus far. Just as it did in winning two of three in a season-opening series with the Sox, Kansas City has won with pitching. Headlined by Zack Greinke's 2-0, 0.00 ERA start, the Royals rank second in the American League in both ERA (3.05) and opponents' batting average (.220) while overcoming a horrendous offense that ranks last in the league in hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The White Sox, who beat the Twins in a one-game playoff last October, were expected to challenge for their second straight division title and fourth of the decade and have not disappointed lately. They're in the midst of a three-game winning streak directly on the heels of a three-game losing streak, the last two of which came in that season-opening home set with the Royals.

Record: 5-2 Lead: 1½ games Why: It's hard to say what is more surprising: that the Mariners are in first place only one season after they lost more than 100 games, or that they have done so without the services of their best player. Ichiro Suzuki is on the disabled list with severe fatigue brought on by a bleeding ulcer, and although he is expected to return this week when the Mariners open their home schedule, Seattle hasn't missed him much. In Ichiro's absence, first-year manager Don Wakamatsu has had to try out seven different lineups in seven games, but the pitching has carried the club, leading the AL with a 2.92 ERA and a .211 opponents' batting average.

Record: 5-1 Lead: 1½ games Why: The Braves and Marlins have earned their way to the top of the NL East by beating the two teams virtually everyone expects to battle down to the wire for the third year in a row. Atlanta took two of three from the defending world champion Phillies to start the season, while the Marlins won two of three from the Mets in Miami over the weekend. Young pitching has been Florida's strength. All four of its top starters are 26 or younger, and through six games only Ricky Nolasco (at 26, the graybeard of the group) has struggled, posting a 7.36 ERA in his first two starts. Josh Johnson, 25, outdueled Johan Santana on Sunday in what may have been the best pitching matchup of the young season, tossing a complete game five-hitter to beat the Mets and lower his ERA to 0.57. The Braves, meanwhile, have won with offense. Their .300 batting average and .540 slugging percentage are tops in the NL. Three Braves are batting at least .400 and three others have hit multiple home runs, giving them strength from top to bottom in their order.

Record: 6-2 Lead: ½ game Why: After marching to an 86-76 record a year ago the Cardinals aren't nearly the surprise that some of the other teams on this list are, but in a division that most have conceded to the Cubs, their fast start is nonetheless noteworthy. They followed a split with the Pirates by sweeping the Astros at Busch Stadium and are now on their first road trip of the season, which will include an intriguing four-game set with the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals lead the league with 76 hits and are tied for second in runs scored (40).

Record: 6-2 Lead: 1 game Why: San Diego got off to an almost identical start a year ago, but by mid-April had sunk below .500, never to rise above that mark the rest of the season en route to its worst record in 15 years. The real surprise has been the pitching staff, which ranks third in the majors with a 2.88 ERA and has surrendered just three home runs in eight games. The bullpen, which includes five members who joined the team after the start of spring training, has been even more impressive, posting a big-league-best 1.17 ERA. But even Padres manager Bud Black didn't see this start coming from his team, which finished 10-21 in the spring, the worst in baseball. "The last game of spring training is a different animal from the first game of the season," said Black. "We didn't know what would happen but we're happy with how it's going. We're playing the game the way we've talked about."

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