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Identifying this season's superb starts ... and the poor ones, too

Folks always talk about how important it is to get off to a good start. These players, managers and executives can say they're off to spectacular starts ...

1. Joe Torre, Dodgers manager: He's guided the one team in baseball that seems to have only highlights (save for Manny's suspension) and solidified his Hall of Fame legacy. The Dodgers have more than survived the Man-Ram's absence. Also, Torre has sold a helluva lot of Yankee Years books. And he will, of course, get that extension he says he's not sure he wants.

2. Jim Tracy, Rockies manager: He always seemed to me like something of a cornball. Shows you how much I know. Given the interim job, the Rockies have transformed into everything everyone thought they'd be, and actually a lot more than most. They won a ridiculous 17 of 18 and nine straight on the road before Tuesday night's 4-3 defeat to the Angels. The key, according to one Rockies insider, is spelling out roles. His own role may become a permanent one after this. Special mention to Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, whose acquisitions of Jason Marquis and Huston Street on a shoestring look very prescient now. If they fall out of it, both pitchers will have strong trade value, especially Street.

3. Juan Pierre, Dodgers fill-in: Among all the great things to go right for the Dodgers, Pierre's re-emergence has to bring the greatest personal satisfaction. Seemingly written off as an irrelevant backup, he's hit nearly as well as the Man-Ram, at least in terms of batting average. Pierre's hitting an unaided .329 to Manny's .348.

4. Zack Greinke, Royals starter: Everyone seems worried about him now that his ERA is all the way up to 1.90 (to go with his 9-3 record). He's still one of the two best under-25 pitchers in the game (Tim Lincecum's the other). And he got us to talk about Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968, at least for a little while

5. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks outfielder: This 21-year-old star has burst onto an otherwise dreary Diamondbacks scene and shown why he was taken No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft, perhaps the best draft ever. He's hitting .324 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs, batting .520 over the past six games. Unfortunately for Arizona, it's not rubbing off on his teammates.

6. Nick Green, Red Sox fill-in shortstop: Longtime backup and journeyman finally got his chance in Boston, and he's made the most of it. With the pressure of playing in a pressure cooker, even after reports surfaced that the team was seeking outside help, Green has thrived and almost made folks forget about Julio Lugo. The walkoff home run against the Braves was just the topper. Batting .293 with four home runs and 25 RBIs overall.

7. Albert Pujols, Cardinals superstar: Even by his ridiculous standards, he's having an absurd season. Pujols is on pace to set highs in all power categories after a big weekend back in his hometown of Kansas City. His OPS is a sick 1.159 now, and he leads the majors in home runs (26) and RBIs (70).

8. Cito Gaston, Blue Jays manager: He's helped combat injuries that decimated their pitching staff -- leaving him with four rookies -- and done it in the best division in baseball. Somehow, they are 39-33 and tied with the Yankees for second place in the tough AL East. Special mention to GM J.P. Ricciardi, who appears to have gathered more talent than anyone's given him credit for.

9. Mike Weiner, incoming players' union chief: He's about to get the job he's been doing anyway. The reputation is that he'll fight hard without creating the acrimony between players and owners we've had over most of the past quarter century.

10. Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays surprise: Bit player having a big year. He's second in the AL in runs, and recently made the Phillies' vaunted DP combo look foolish by taking second on a walk when they weren't looking.

11. Jim Leyland, Tigers manager: Tigers officials practically laughed off his attempt at a contract extension at the end of last year. But they jumped into a new two-year deal for Leyland in recent days, as he has his hot Tigers in first place with five straight wins and a four-game lead in what's always been thought to be a wide-open AL Central. That's lifted the spirits of the beleaguered state.

And some great baseball people not off to such great starts ...

1. Billy Beane, A's GM: The legendary Beane, who is one of the smartest people in baseball, followed owner Lew Wolff's directive to go for it this year, and it sure doesn't look like the A's are going to make it. Matt Holliday looks like prime trade bait now, but with teams still concerned about the economy, not many will be anxious to take the remainder of his $12.5 million contract. On top of that, the Moneyball script apparently stunk, and the whole thing may end up on the cutting room floor. That means no Brad Pitt.

2. Manny Ramirez, Dodgers superstar: He may have been cheered as an Albuquerque Isotope Tuesday night, but he's tainted now thanks to the test he failed, just like all the rest.

3. New York managers: Things were going great for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, with multiple pie-in-the-face moments for the Yankees' $200 million fun bunch, but the team hit the skids in the NL portion of its schedule (five defeats in seven games vs. the Nats, Marlins and Braves). Reports of a rift with A-Rod seem unfounded, or overblown at least. But nothing matters if Girardi doesn't make it to the playoffs a second straight season. Mets manager Jerry Manuel has been about the unluckiest manager in terms of injuries. And while the team has hung in the race (only three behind Philly despite the loss of Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, J.J. Putz, John Maine and now Carlos Beltran), he's getting criticized by Mets fans for his use of the bullpen. Or in a couple cases, overuse.

4. Chris Young, Diamondbacks outfielder: Just when he started to get his act together, going 4 for 4 vs. Kansas City and bringing his average up to .204 (marking the first time it's been above .200 since April 29), Young grabs his groin running into third base on a triple.

5. Don Fehr, outgoing players' union chief: After a mostly spectacular quarter century leading the players union, and overseeing player salaries rise about 10-fold, much of the talk as he retires is about steroids and how he either didn't grasp what was going on or didn't want to. According to one GM, several agents seem thrilled with Monday's change to Weiner.

6. Most 2007 LCS managers: Clint Hurdle is gone from Colorado and Bob Melvin is out of Arizona. Cleveland's Eric Wedge is having a rough time in Cleveland, with some folks getting antsy (but apparently not his boss, GM Mark Shapiro). Terry Francona of the '07 champion Red Sox is the only one of the four managers really rolling along.

The Nationals are off to a slow start in negotiations with No. 1 choice Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State phenom who supposedly has hit 103 mph on the gun. People close to the situation say Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, told the Nats, in effect, "We have all the time in the world."

The Nats have only until Aug. 17, in reality. But it is believed Strasburg's people don't want him taxing his arm by pitching in the major leagues this year, so they are taking the position in talks that there's no rush to sign this year. The Nationals are in a tough spot, since they failed to sign last year's No. 1 pick (though they did sign this year's No. 10 overall, Stanford pitcher Drew Storen). And they're headed for the worst record in baseball again.

Boras is believed to have mentioned Daisuke Matsuzaka ($52 million) and Jose Contreras ($32 million) as comps. The record for guaranteed money for a drafted player is much lower, $10.5 million for Mark Prior.

Most folks believe the likelihood is still that Strasburg winds up signing with the Nats right on the Aug. 17 deadline. Guesses have ranged from $15 million to $30 million.

• There have been hints the Nationals may be considering outside general manager possibilities in addition to interim GM Mike Rizzo. Nats president Stan Kasten says a fulltime GM will be announced during this year, so it could get interesting. It was written in a few places that Rays exec Gerry Hunsicker, who did a nice job for nine years as Astros GM, could be a candidate. However, Hunsicker said by phone he hasn't been contacted by the Nats and that he is very happy with the Rays. Sure doesn't sound like he's going anywhere. Two other good names that have been mentioned are White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn and Marlins executive Dan Jennings.

• It wasn't a good sign when Brandon Webb felt pain while tossing off flat ground the other day. Now the Arizona Republic reports shoulder surgery is a possibility. The D-backs seem snakebit, that's for sure (sorry).

• Diamondbacks starter Doug Davis is seen as a starter who could help a contender. The Brewers seek a pitcher, preferably a left-hander. So a return to Milwaukee could make sense.

• Carlos Beltran might seek out a second opinion after Mets doctors diagnosed a larger bone bruise. In any case, he is not expected back when eligible in two weeks. "He'll be out a while," said someone close to Beltran.

• The Rays would like to acquire a closer, but would have to do it without adding payroll. Tough task.

• Rays GM Andrew Friedman said there's one scenario where Pedro Martinez signs with them, but he still sees it a long shot. Friedman didn't say why, but Martinez is believed to be seeking $5 million prorated (about $2.5 million now).

• The Indians are said to be getting lots of calls on versatile Mark DeRosa. The Cardinals and Mets are believed to be two interested teams.

• Daisuke Matsuzaka's on the DL with a shoulder issue. But he isn't helping his cause by also being out of shape.

• The Royals may have some interest in struggling Brave Jeff Francoeur. K.C. GM Dayton Moore was once a top Braves exec.

• Reds Slugger Joey Votto returned to the lineup in his hometown of Toronto and explained that his DL stay was the result of anxiety and depression that started with the sudden death of his father, Joseph, only 52, last August. Votto played after taking six days off last year, but the anxiety came on this season. Best wishes to him.

• Funny to see Boras and Leyland, who are actually pretty friendly, mix it up over the benching of Magglio Ordonez, who's hitting .271 but showing little power. When Boras pointed out publicly that major slumps by Carlos Delgado and David Ortiz (last year and this year) didn't get them benched indefinitely, the feisty Leyland took umbrage. He doesn't like anyone suggesting he is handling his team incorrectly.

While Leyland said Ordonez's benching would be "indefinite," Boras wanted to make sure that didn't mean forever. Ordonez was back in the lineup after five games out, going 0 for 2. That was probably Leyland's plan all along; people close to him note he says "indefinite" when he means a few days. But this case isn't completely resolved. The big issue in the background, of course, is the $18 million vesting option Ordonez gets with 540 plate appearances. Teams are not allowed to cut players based on salary.

Bernie Madoff, who stole billions from the Mets-owning Wilpons, their friend Sandy Koufax and thousands of others, wants leniency now. Let's be serious. He ruined hundreds of hard-working, fine people who didn't have the wherewithal of the Wilpons. He doesn't cooperate to help others. All he does is speak up for himself and his own leniency. What a pig.

President Obama will throw out the first ball at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. It's going to be tough to top President Bush in that department. Throwing out first pitches was one thing Bush 43 did well as president.

• It's almost unseemly that the Yankees would protest a Marlins victory based on a technicality. Good to see reason prevail, as the claim based on a lineup snafu was rejected.

• The irreverent tweeting continues at SI_JonHeyman.

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