It's been an eventful first couple weeks, and here are my initial observations, suggestions, rumors, regrets and recriminations ...
1. David Ortiz appears lost and may be about to lose significant playing time.
Somehow, Ortiz has been even worse at the start of this season than he was at the beginning of last year. Through 11 games in 2009, Ortiz was batting .186 with a .275 on-base percentage and .209 slugging percentage, no home runs, four RBIs and 12 strikeouts; this year, he's hitting .146/.222/.268 with zero home runs, two RBIs and 17 strikeouts. But there's a big difference. Last year, all the other Red Sox started so well they could afford to carry Big Papi. That isn't the case this year. The Red Sox now have to guard against getting buried in a ridiculously tough division. The Yankees and Rays are everything everyone expected. But so far, the Red Sox are not. Mike Lowell got the call as starting designated hitter the last two games against left-handed pitchers, and he needs to keep getting more calls, against lefties and maybe even righties, too. Someone familiar with Boston's thinking say they know they are in deep already and can't waste time, saying it's "conceivable'' Ortiz could find himself riding an awful lot of pine in the near future.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona is thought to be more reluctant to switch away from Ortiz. He said he will start Ortiz tonight against Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie and has referred to calls to bench Big Papi based on numbers "fantasy" baseball. But if Ortiz's nightmarish start continues along this path, Francona will have to confront the possibility that fantasy will have become a harsh reality.
2. Jason Heyward is everything he's been built up to be and more.
From the very first swing of his career -- an Opening Day home run against the Cubs -- Heyward has been electrifying. Still just 20 years old, the kid who entered the season as Baseball America's No. 1 overall prospect won a starting job in spring training and is hitting .286 with four homers, 16 RBIs and a .999 OPS. Scouts say he has incredible plate discipline and fabulous basreunning instincts. Indeed, he appears to be once-in-a-decade positional prospect.
3. Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams remain the odd couple.
According to people who know both men, White Sox manager Guillen and general manager Williams are regularly engaged in heated dialogue and aren't exactly loving each other lately. Guillen, who's making more progress with his Twitter account than his team, and Williams, who's smart like Guillen and can be just as feisty, do love each other when they're winning. But not so much now that the White Sox are 5-11 and in last place in the AL Central, already six games out. It doesn't matter; they know they are stuck with each other for better or worse, like a marriage. They are both Jerry Reinsdorf guys, and if you're one of Reinsdorf's guys, you're golden. So suck it up, fellas, your pitching is the best in your division and it's early enough to get back in it.
4. Andruw Jones has regained his form and his game.
After two wasted years in L.A. followed by a half-step back in Texas, Jones looks like his old self on the South Side of Chicago, batting .323 with four HRs. He's doing a lot of DHing for the offensively-challenged team, but he looked so good in spring training that one NL scout suggested Jones can still play center field close to the way he did as a perennial Gold Glover with the Braves and may be wasted as DH.
5. Never bet against the Twins.
Whatever you think their record will be, they usually do 10 games better. Sure, they gave up their beloved Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. And sure, they lost their supposedly indispensable closer, Joe Nathan. But there they are back in first place again in their new park with Jon Rauch and his underwhelming stuff closing out victories. My first regret: not picking them to win the AL Central.
6. The Phillies look as good or better than everyone thought.
The "best team in the National League,'' one GM already declared. Which should come as no surprise. They've got a lot going for them, even with rotation, bullpen and injury questions early. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins form about the best three-man nucleus in the game. Utley is picking up where he left of in the playoffs, and Howard is a superstar who doesn't get his due, possibly because he's in the same league and era as The Great Albert Pujols. And you know what? He's transformed himself into a decent first baseman. "He'll surprise you with his agility,'' is the way one scout put it. Ballyhooed newcomer Roy Halladay has been even better than expected, going 4-0 with a 0.82 ERA, top free-agent acquisition Placido Polanco has been just what they hoped for in the No. 2 hole (he's hitting .383) and Jose Contreras looks comfortable again in a relief role.
7. Neftali Feliz is making the Rangers look very smart
Rangers manager Ron Washington, who has some heat on him, made the right move in switching quickly to Feliz, who brings more heat than anyone in the game. He hit 102-mph on the gun in his latest game against the Red Sox, when he was between 99-102 on every fastball. No one in baseball throws harder. And maybe no trade from the past decade will prove to be better than Texas' blockbuster deal in 2007 to move Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a long list of bona fide prospects, none of whom have been better than Feliz.
8. We're close to a closer controversy in California.
Brian Fuentes came off the disabled list and on Wednesday he allowed a game-tying and then a game-winning home run, then was booed on his way off the mound. Even when he led the league in saves last year, he wasn't impressing anyone. The Angels were wise to sign Fernando Rodney as a free agent just in case they're up for a change.
9. Ubaldo Jimenez is "going to be a big-time star."
That's what one GM told me this spring. After basically flipping a coin I took Ricky Nolasco to win the Cy Young over Jimenez. (Halladay was too easy a choice.) But so far, nobody beyond Halladay has been better than Jimenez (3-0, 1.29), who became the first Rockies pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter, leaving the Rays, Padres and Mets as the only teams without one.
10. Big Pelf may be baseball's most improved pitcher.
After failing to live up to much of the hype that has accompanied him at the start of his career, the Mets' Mike Pelfrey is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA and there are several reasons why. He replaced a so-so-slider with a dynamic split-fingered fastball, got himself into better shape with a new conditioning program, and appears to be benefiting from some offseason consultation with noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. "He seems a little more under control,'' one scout said. Pelfrey was especially impressive in his most recent outings, volunteering to come out of the pen to save the Mets' 20-inning victory over the Cardinals in between bookend starting performances of seven shutout innings each.
11. David Wright still looks all wrong at the plate.
Scouts say Wright appears to be bailing against right-handers. They aren't sure whether it's related to the beaning he suffered last year against Giants' hard-throwing righty Matt Cain, but Wright was flinching after that, so it can't be ruled out. Wright still looks terrific vs. left-handers (.308 vs. lefties vs. .212 vs. righties), but unfortunately for him, there aren't as many of those. Compounding Wright's early struggles is Jason Bay, who's "having so much trouble with of-speed stuff,'' according to one scout. The reports on how to pitch to Bay, said that scout say "soft, soft and softer.'' Bay's defense has been stellar, so as it turns out, he might have fit better into Boston's new defense-first scheme than they thought when they let him leave as a free agent over the winter.
12. The Pirates might be the worst 7-8 team ever.
Their run differential is a negative 55. Yet if they win tonight they'll be 8-8 and might be the most undeserving .500 team ever. In getting outscored 36-1 in a three-game sweep against Milwaukee, including 20-0 on Thursday, the Pirates didn't even look like they belonged on the same field with the Brewers, a much better team that's somehow only one game over .500 at 8-7.
13. Rickie Weeks is finally living up to his billing.
The former No. 2 draft choice overall came to camp determined to have a big season after an injury spoiled his fast start last year, and he is making the most of it. He's hitting .327 with three homers and 11 RBIs, and it looks like Brewers coach and former All-Star Willie Randolph is helping to turn him into a very good second baseman, too.
14. The defending champs aren't messing around.
At lest three Yankees came to camp in appreciably better shape -- Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher -- and two of them are off to big starts (Pettitte and Posada). The Yankees did not get fat off their first title in nine years, and rather returned with a resolve to do it again. Pettitte (2-0, 1.35) and Posada (.357, three home runs, eight RBIs) continue to contribute mightily to the World Series favorite while building possible Cooperstown cases.
15. King Felix is still amazing...
...and some of the others in Seattle's rotation sometimes look like royalty, too. The Mariners are trying to steal a winnable division with pitching and defense, and they could do it. Even with big winter pickup Cliff Lee not scheduled to make his first start until April 30, the Mariners are shining. Over three games this week, Hernandez, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas allowed two runs over 23 innings (0.78 ERA), and Hernandez now has an unthinkable 17 straight quality starts.
16. Lou Piniella didn't wait long to shake up the slumping Cubbies.
Piniella pulled a shocker by moving Carlos Zambrano and his $91-million contract to the bullpen and making him the most expensive setup man in history. The Cubs' pen has been nothing short of a disaster, and with Ted Lilly coming back, one of the starters had to make the move. Ex-reliever Ryan Dempster seemed logical, and one friend of Zambrano's called the move "asinine.'' But Zambrano, never thought to be a favorite of Piniella's, has yet to complain.
17. Jorge Cantu can do.
One of the best ever pick-ups for nothing, Cantu was once inexplicably released by the Rays. The Marlins, one of the smarter teams around, pounced a couple years back. Cantu set a record for most games with an RBI to start a year and is batting .300 with four home runs and 18 RBIs while dedicating his start to the new team that saved him from the scrap heap. Nice touch.
18. Brad Penny may actually be worth those 750 million pennies.
Everyone thought the $7.5-million deal was an obvious overpay at the time. But Penny (2-0, 1.29), under the guidance of pitching coach and noted miracle worker Dave Duncan, looks like a new man in St. Louis.
19. Barry Zito and Vernon Wells may not be busts anymore.
This pair of $126-million men may shed their tags as nine-figure busts if they keep this up. Zito (2-0, 1.86 ERA) and Wells (.364, 7 HRs, 12 RBIs) may never prove to be worth those monstrous deals, especially after both struggled mightily in the first few years after signing those contracts. But they are finally performing again at an All-Star level.
20. Shin-Soo Choo is an unheralded star.
The Indians outfielder is one of the more unheralded stars in the game. He is hitting .313 with four home runs and 13 RBIs and was a fitting winner of the first Player of the Week award in the AL.
• Current Rangers owner Tom Hicks and prospective owner Chuck Greenberg are still haggling over dollars. MLB issued a statement expressing hope that a deal to complete the sale of the team can still be worked out, but doubts clearly are growing at this point. Hicks, who has been pessimistic throughout, appears to remain so.
• Outgoing Padres owner John Moores is seen by some as a potential buyer of the Houston Astros, whose owner, Drayton McLane, is willing to at least field offers to sell the team. Moores has moved to Houston after the divorce that caused him to sell San Diego.
• Former Braves outfielder (and one-time NFL player) Brian Jordan told Jim Bowden and Casey Stern on Sirius/XM that he believes Chipper Jones needs to work harder as he gets older to avoid injuries. Seems like a reasonable idea for an injury-prone veteran.
• The Rays are wise to lock up versatile star Ben Zobrist to a guaranteed three-year deal with two years worth of team options. The recent trend for team options is a major boon to the clubs.
• Yankees GM Brian Cashman did a classy thing driving to Citi Field to present Xavier Nady with his World Series ring when the Cubs were in town to play the Mets.