Wednesday April 14th, 2010

The Phillies' 6-1 start has done nothing to silence talk that the NL's two-time defending champs can go where no NL team has gone since 1942-44: to three consecutive World Series. Along with the Albert Pujols-led Cardinals and the youth-led Rockies, the Phillies are one of three NL teams clearly superior to the rest of the pool.

The fast start, however, doesn't mean much. The Phillies have opened the season with what amounts to an extended spring training, playing seven games against the two worst teams in the National League, the Nationals and Astros. The Phillies have completely dominated, outscoring the two 51-21 in seven games, scoring at least six runs six times and suffering their only defeat in a one-run game last Thursday. We know very little more about them today than we did two weeks ago; that they may open the season 8-1 -- should they take the next two games at home against the Nats -- is just a matter of meeting expectations. The Phils may be baseball's "it" team by the weekend, but it will be the following nine games, against the Marlins, Braves and Diamondbacks, that will tell us more about them -- especially if Jimmy Rollins' calf injury keeps him out of the lineup during that run.

Early-season performances, good and bad, have to be considered in the context of the opposition. A year ago it was the Toronto Blue Jays who found themselves at the center of attention with a 22-12 start that was largely a function of friendly scheduling. Despite the unbalanced schedule, the Jays did not play a single game against the the Red Sox, Yankees or Rays until May 12. Their "hot" start came entirely against the AL Central and AL West, and featured just six games against eventual playoff teams. When the schedule shifted, so did their performance: the Jays went 53-75 from May 12 on. They weren't gelling, coming together, growing as a team or any of the other cliches that were rampant when they were playing .600 ball; they were simply enjoying a baby-soft slate.

It works the other way as well. The Yankees went 4-2 in this season's first week while taking the toughest road trip they can take: a week in Boston and Tampa. They get the Angels at home now, followed by the Rangers. It will be April 27 before they play a team, the Orioles, projected by anyone to be bad, and their schedule in the first two months is heavy on teams projected to fight for postseason berths. Twenty-five of their first 41 games are against the Red Sox, Rays, Angels, Rangers and Twins. A strong start will mean a lot because they'll be beating good teams, and a weak one can be waved off to some extent due to the quality of the competition. (Good luck explaining that to the New York press corps, however.) It balances out later, as the Yankees play the Indians, Orioles, Blue Jays and Astros for 2½ weeks starting Memorial Day weekend, a stretch that has Seth Greenberg just a little bit jealous.

The Angels suffered through a similar grind last year, opening their season with a three-game series against the A's, then playing just two of their next 21 games against teams that would finish the year under .500. They weren't 10-13 on May 2 for any reason other than they had just run a gauntlet that included a series against each of the top two teams in the other two AL divisions, plus six games with the Mariners, who would finish with a surprising 85 wins. They did all of this while dealing with the death of teammate Nick Adenhart. Their poor record during this time was attributed to that tragedy, but it may simply have been the product of a brutal opening stretch. Once the schedule leavened, the Angels' record did as well: 87-52 after an East Coast swing to end the season's first month.

You cannot evaluate team performance in April without considering the opposition, and the biggest mistakes that get made, in both directions, come when we don't look carefully enough at the schedule as the reason for notably good or bad records. Keep this in mind as you evaluate the following teams over the next few weeks:

• The Diamondbacks, 4-3 entering Wednesday, are one of three NL teams that play the Cardinals, Rockies and Phillies in the season's first month. They also have a road trip to Los Angeles. It's a tough stretch for a team missing its No. 1 starter, Brandon Webb.

• The Braves (3-4) and Mets (2-5) are the other two teams that see all three of the NL's division favorites early in the season. The Mets, in fact, play just a single noncontender in the season's first four weeks -- and that team, the Nationals, took two of three from them over the weekend.

• On the other hand, the Cubs (3-4) don't play the Cardinals, Phillies or Rockies until May 17. They're currently in the middle of a 16-game stretch against the Brewers (two series), Astros, Mets and Nationals that may not include a single team that finishes the season over .500. Look for them to be this year's version of the Jays, a team that gets good early-season press thanks to a weak schedule and then struggles once the competition improves.

• The Mariners (3-6) play almost the opposite of the Yankees' brutal schedule, with no games against the three AL East contenders, the Twins or the Angels until May 4. We may hear a lot about their run prevention in the season's first month, so keep in mind that they play very few games against good offensive teams in April.

• The Tigers are 6-2 for a reason: they have the AL's version of the Phillies' schedule, getting the Royals twice and the Indians to open the season. They've taken advantage of both teams' wretched bullpens -- four of their six wins have come by beating relievers.

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