It took four Opening Days spread out over more than a week, but the 2012 season is finally under way. All 30 teams have completed at least one series, and while more than 98 percent of the season remains, here are five thoughts based on what we've seen so far.
If the Red Sox and Braves had each won two more games last April, the thrilling final day of the 2011 baseball season wouldn't have happened. Wins and losses in April aren't decisive, but every game counts the same in the end, and several contenders have already dug themselves early holes this season. That's especially significant given the new playoff format, which places increased emphasis on winning the division by making the two wild-card teams play a one-game playoff to advance.
The most significant opening series, in my opinion, was the Diamondbacks' three-game sweep of the Giants in Phoenix. Arizona and San Francisco were the popular preseason picks to win the NL West (our writers split their picks evenly between the two), but the Giants now have to out-play the Diamondbacks by four games over the rest of the season to win the division.
In a similar jam: the Yankees, who were swept by the division-rival Rays, and the Red Sox, who were swept by the AL Central Tigers. Granted, the last time the Yankees started 0-3, they went on to win 114 games in 1998 and take the AL East by finishing 22 games ahead of Boston. And while three April games don't mean a whole lot when there's a big talent gap, the disparity between the Yankees and Rays has narrowed with New York's big offseason addition, starting pitcher Michael Piñeda, on the disabled list with shoulder problems and no timetable for his return. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, who failed to make any offseason upgrades to their rotation, never looked to me like a team that was likely to be four games better than the Rays. Boston seems to have picked up right where it left off, giving up 23 runs in its last two games and finding every possible way to lose, dropping a pitchers' duel, a blowout and a shootout thus far.
Speaking of the Red Sox, their offseason plan to solve their rotation problems by moving relief pitchers already on the team into the rotation struck me as borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and their opening series in Detroit has only reinforced that view. The thumb injury that is expected to keep imported closer Andrew Bailey on the shelf for the entire first half is a major culprit, but that doesn't change the fact that two of Boston's three losses over the weekend can be placed at the feet of the two men they've designated to finish games: newly minted closer Alfredo Aceves and set-up man Mark Melancon.
On Friday, finally rid of Justin Verlander after eight innings, the Sox rallied in the top of the ninth to tie the game 2-2 only to have Melancon and Aceves combine to give up the game-winning run in the bottom of the inning. On Sunday, Aceves was handed a three-run lead in the ninth in his first save chance of the young season, but blew it without getting an out, forcing extra innings. After the Sox scored two in the top of the 12th, Melancon was brought on for the save, but he also gave up three runs, taking his second loss in three days. The two have combined to allow seven runs while recording just three outs (all of the latter by Melancon).
Melancon closed for the Astros last year, and Aceves was arguably the Red Sox's best pitcher when the rest of the staff went belly-up last September, but both were worked heavily (74 1/3 innings in 71 games for Melancon, 114 innings in 51 relief appearances and four starts for Aceves) and had some bad outings in spring training. It's too early to strip these men of their roles, but if the time does come to do so, the organizational depth chart doesn't offer any particularly compelling alternatives.
After Opening Weekend, the teams that have scored the fewest runs in baseball are the Twins (5), White Sox (6) and Phillies (6). We know the Twins are a bad team. The White Sox are a weak team as well and were facing the Rangers, owners of one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The Phillies, however, averaged just two runs per game despite playing the Pirates, scoring just once in each of their first two games. As a team, they are hitting .204/.269/.255 over 98 at-bats. Roy Halladay, who singled once in three trips on Opening Day, is fifth on the team in OPS. Juan Pierre, who has singled twice in five trips and signed as a non-roster invitee this winter, is third. The Phillies dropped the second and third games after winning the opener 1-0 behind Halladay, and for fans worried about how the team would score runs with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley out indefinitely due to injury, this had to be the worst way to start the season.
Obviously, the Phillies are eventually going to hit and score more than they did in Pittsburgh over the weekend, but I can't offer a great deal of optimism about how much better they are going to be. Their offense was already in decline even before the injuries to Howard and Utley (see table), and there's no telling how effective either of those two will be after they return, particularly Utley, who already saw a huge drop in production last year due to his deteriorating knees.
Already living up to the hype, Yoenis Cespedes looks like he's going to be fascinating to watch this season. After doubling off Felix Hernandez in his major league debut in Tokyo, Cespedes has homered in each of his last three games, and the moonshot that he hit off Jason Vargas Friday night suggests that Oakland's Coliseum isn't going to cramp his style (though it would help if they played Christopher Cross' Sailing when Cespedes rounds the bases).
Those three homers tie Cespedes for the major league lead in the early going, but it's worth noting that he also leads the majors in strikeouts. Of Cespedes' first 15 major league plate appearances, 10 have ended in a home run or strikeout. That's not unexpected given the scouting reports we had on him, but it's still a red flag, particularly given the fact that none of his plate appearances have ended in a walk (though he does have a double and two hit-by-pitches in his five other PAs). The concern is how often Cespedes will make contact once major league scouts, coaches and pitchers have seen him enough. Watching major leaguers figuring out how to pitch to Cespedes, and watching Cespedes try to adjust to them in turn, could be one of the more fascinating plotlines of this season, and one of the few good reasons to watch A's games.
The other foreign-born Rookie of the Year candidate in the American League, Yu Darvish, will make his major league debut for the Rangers Monday night against Hector Noesi and the Mariners. But Darvish is just one of several compelling young pitchers who will debut this week.
On Tuesday afternoon, Matt Moore will lead the Rays against the Tigers. Former top prospects who had success out of the bullpen over the last two years, Chris Sale of the White Sox and Neftali Feliz of the Rangers, will make their first major league starts on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tuesday will also bring the first major league start for Daniel Bard, the Red Sox's former closer-in-waiting. To my eye, the Sox have bet the entire season on Bard succeeding in his new role, and they'll get their first returns on Tuesday night in Toronto. Lefty Felix Doubront, the other new homegrown arm in the Red Sox rotation, will start Monday night, as will fellow lefty Brian Matusz of the Orioles, who had a strong spring and is looking to come back from a historically awful 2011 season. Finally, Trevor Cahill will make his Diamondbacks debut on Tuesday night in San Diego. The D'backs hope Cahill gets off to a better start in the NL than his former A's teammate Gio Gonzalez did Saturday, when he failed to make it out of the fourth inning in his debut with the Nationals.