Jon Heyman
Monday May 4th, 2009

It's time to separate the wheat from the sheet, the cream from the crud and the contenders from the pretenders. Well, you get the idea. There's a whole lot of supposed surprise teams (or at least five of 'em) a month into this season. A couple of these teams may continue to surprise. But others will sink to their predicted level, which is a lot lower than where they are now.

Here's a closer look at the early surprises (and you can get more thoughts by following me on Twitter). Teams are assessed as either "real deal" or phony baloney," with nothing in between.


Strengths: This team has an ace (Zack Greinke, 5-0. 0.50), a closer (Joakim Soria, 6-for-6, 1.17 ERA) and enough pitching in between to match up well in its division. Although, anytime Sidney Ponson is getting starts, that's not exactly a positive sign. Late signee Juan Cruz (1-0, 2.30) gives them a nice back-end combo, though Kyle Farnsworth is showing New York wasn't his only problem. The defense is solid, especially now with Coco Crisp in center field. They have youth going for them, no small thing in this day and (allegedly non-steroid) age.

Weaknesses: Their lineup is a little short. And one competing exec calls the Mark Teahen experiment at second "a little shaky."

Competition: It's a division where everyone's decent and no one's great, so there's hope. Said one competing AL Central exec, who's not ruling out the Royals: "86 or 87 wins could win it."

Assessment: Real Deal (especially in that division).


Strengths: Their lineup is showing its muscle now that Vernon Wells is playing to his ability and Aaron Hill (.361) appears to be emerging as a threat. Plus, kid hitters Travis Snider and Adam Lind (5 HRs, 23 RBIs) are "pedigreed bats" according to a competing exec, so the early hitting display isn't a tremendous surprise. They start their rotation with Roy Halladay (5-1, 3.68), who's as good as anyone. Plus, thus far they've valiantly weathered an inordinate number of injuries to their pitching rotation. Can Scott Downs (17 K's, 0 BBs) keep fooling 'em? Ya' gotta love Cito Gaston. It's baseball's shame he was away so long.

Weaknesses: Eventually, all these pitching injuries may catch up to them. Ricky Romero, Jesse Litsch and Casey Janssen have joined Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum in sick bay, though the latest injuries aren't nearly as serious. B.J. Ryan is also hurt after dipping radar readings in spring, and the bullpen is a question.

Competition: "The division's going to get them," one competing exec said. "I don't see them matching up in the AL East through the dog days."

Assessment: Phony Baloney (this isn't a bad team, by any means, but it's got little shot in that division).


Strengths: Tony La Russa, love him or hate him, gets the most of his teams. "He did his best job ever over the last two years," one exec said. Which is pretty impressive, considering he won a World Series with a fairly mundane 2006 team. "The Cardinals play a confident, winning style," said that exec. It doesn't hurt, either, that they have arguably baseball's best player, Albert Pujols (9 HRs, 29 RBIs), and some more nice complimentary threats like Ryan Ludwick (6, 21) and Rick Ankiel. Kyle Lohse (3-0, 1.97) is doing it again. Maybe all he needed was the NL. Or maybe it was pitching coach Dave Duncan, still unsung after all these years.

Weaknesses: The loss of Chris Carpenter, again, is a killer. La Russa has called him a key to the team both on the field and off. They have their own second-base experiment, but anything with La Russa's stamp on it looks a lot better for that reason alone. They have no real lockdown closer. Will Ryan Franklin (7-for-7, 0.00) keep this up?

Competition: If Carpenter comes back healthy, they might be able to beat the Cubs and Brewers in a division that's better than some suggest.

Assessment: Real Deal.


Strengths: That young and talented rotation works in their division, or any division. Josh Johnson (2-0, 2.60) looks like an ace, and 6-foot-8 Chris Volstad (2-0, 2.67) may be one, too. They can bang, and their right-handed-heavy lineup, led by Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and underrated Jorge Cantu (7 HRs, 25 RBIs) plays at Dolphin Stadium.

Weaknesses: They've rolled the dice with unknown relievers and won in recent years, and they're trying it again (Kiko Calero is the latest surprise, with 18 whiffs in 13 innings). They're a young, mostly immature group, and Fredi Gonzalez's skills are tried nearly every day. So far their defense hasn't killed them, but that doesn't mean it won't. Even with a stadium coming, they will likely hold onto their loot at trade-deadline time, though their ingenious front-office minds will work around the bargain-basement payroll as best they can.

Competition: It's a tough but imperfect division. The Mets and Phillies both have varying issues.

Assessment: Real Deal (though they remain the third choice here in their division).


Strengths: The 1-2 combo of King Felix (4-0, 2.38) and a rejuvenated Erik Bedard (2-1, 2.61) is imposing. The defense is superb, led by center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, left fielder Endy Chavez and third baseman Adrian Beltre. The clubhouse, abominable by all accounts last year, is improved with the importing of Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. and may no longer be run by Ichiro. New manager Don Wakamatsu looks good so far.

Weaknesses: The offense, which is getting by so far, could turn into a pumpkin. For example, said one exec, "Russell Branyan's (6 HR, 14 RBIs, .324) not going to do this all year." Even the new, skinnier Carlos Silva (1-2, 7.36) isn't doing it and may not be long for the rotation. They have hard throwers in the 'pen (Brandon Morrow, David Aardsma, Mark Lowe), but they remain unproven.

Competition: "Anaheim's a wild card," one exec said, meaning the team that was expected run away in the AL West is beset by injuries to its best players (Vlad Guerrero, John Lackey and Ervin Santana are all still out -- though Lackey and Santana may only be two weeks away). Another exec said, flat out, "That division (stinks)."

Assessment: Phony Baloney. (They're a lot better team than that 100-loss abomination last year, but still probably not a contender.)

• The Nationals have settled on right-handed phenom Stephen Strasburg from San Diego State. The $50 million asking price won't be met. But for what it's worth, I asked two executives who they'd rather have -- Strasburg or Erik Bedard (a free agent-to-be who could get around $50 million in my estimation), and neither hesitated for a second. It's Strasburg by a mile. Then again, as one pointed out, "But Strasburg isn't a free agent."

• The best chance for Strasburg to get the $50 million would have been for him to slide all the way down to the Yankees. But a Yankees official acknowledged, "We've got no shot at him."

Alex Rodriguez is due back May 8 or 9, depending on how things go this week. To be exact, that's four or five days after the release of the book A-Rod, by SI's Selena Roberts, which is out today.

• The Kirk Radomski book, Bases Loaded, isn't bad, either. But it's pretty funny how he credits himself with saving the health of the players for whom he provided steroids. His reasoning? If he didn't sell them the 'roids, someone else far less knowledgeable and compassionate might have been MLB's great steroid supplier, which would have endangered the health of the players. Radomski also suggests he didn't make much money selling steroids. Yeah, sure. He did it for the pure joy. This is one delusional cat who should thank his lawyer, John Reilly, and the prosecutors every day. He did acknowledge their work on his behalf in the book.

Jeff Brantley, former Ranger and current broadcaster, told radio's Chris "Mad Dog" Russo that while he didn't know anything about the pitch-tipping allegation in the A-Rod book, Brantley believes Texas teammate Randy Velarde tipped off A-Rod. When Velarde was on first base, he thought he could tell what A's catcher Ramon Hernandez was calling (Velarde and Hernandez were once A's teammates), and Brantley said Velarde would signal A-Rod. Danny Knobler of looked it up, and A-Rod was 6-for-11 with four home runs when Velarde was on first and Hernandez catching.

• Two Rangers people did tell me A-Rod was often calling pitches for his own pitchers, though. (Apparently, he didn't think the Rangers catchers could handle it.) And Rangers manager Buck Showalter said that, as well, on Michael Kay's radio show on ESPN-1050. Showalter (who said he didn't know about pitch tipping to opponents, and said he would have stopped it if he had) said he told Rodriguez to stop calling their pitchers' pitches, by the way.

Oliver Perez's performances thus far have really annoyed his Mets bosses (no surprise there). But indications now are that he will land on the disabled list. No one previously said a word about any knee trouble, but he appeared in the clubhouse Sunday with an ice pack on his knee. His real issue is above the neck, though, Mets higher-ups believe. In speaking about Ken Takahashi, who got out of Perez's last mess, one Mets official noted that at least "he competed." Ouch.

• So Sheffield allegedly has "edge," according to Mets GM Omar Minaya. Was that manifested in him throwing balls away on purpose in Milwaukee, griping about the salaries of teammates in Los Angeles, calling Joe Torre a racist, allegedly sending cash to steroids dealer Victor Conte or nearly two decades worth of whining over personal slights? If that's edge, who wants it?

• GM Brian Cashman said the Yankees can't seriously consider Pedro Martinez or Paul Byrd until they're pitching somewhere. Another GM said either pitcher would likely "need a month" once they sign on to get into pitching shape.

• Tigers ace Justin Verlander is showing signs of getting it back together. After Verlander was hit hard by the Angels earlier this year, one executive said, "The guy throws 97 and has a wicked hook. He has the best stuff in the league. He should be better than this." Tigers insiders say Verlander tends to take a know-it-all position and is resistant to suggestion. But he is no dummy and perhaps he is learning.

• More and more, Cliff Lee -- from 22-3 last year to 1-4 this year -- looks like July trade bait.

• The best-case scenario for Brandon Webb, who gets another MRI this week, is to be back sometime in June.

• Any day I run into Torii Hunter is a good day. So Sunday was that.

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