By John Donovan
May 16, 2005

It's hard to tell the real deals from the forgeries at this time of the year. Are the White Sox really that good? Are the Orioles? The Diamondbacks? Derrek Lee? Jon Garland? Dontrelle Willis?

Are the A's seriously that bad? Can anybody, for that matter, be that bad? Are the Reds? The Astros? How about Jake Westbrook or Dewon Brazelton? Are Aaron Boone and Eric Chavez going to hit like this -- or not hit, as it were -- for the entire season?

It's hard to figure this early in the season. But here, in the middle of May, with six full weeks of games played, we know a few truths to be self-evident:

• We don't know whether the White Sox or Orioles can sustain their early-season dominance. But we know the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East, and the Twins in the AL Central, are hanging with the upstarts and will be there in July and beyond. The Sox and Yanks have gained ground on the Orioles in the last 10 games (the Sox have crept a game closer; the Yanks, with their eight-game winning streak, have picked up two). The Twins are right there with the White Sox, too, despite Chicago's blistering start. And the Orioles and White Sox -- let's face it -- still have some proving to do.

• The Diamondbacks and Dodgers, two flawed teams who have been the early-season surprises in the National League West, might be there in July and beyond. Might. But if they both make it, we know this: They won't be alone. The Padres have some problems of their own, for sure. But they have learned to play in spacious Petco Park, they have an unqualified stopper in Jake Peavy and they're starting to win, as a lot of analysts figured they would. The Padres are 13-3 in their past 16 games, they've eased within a half-game of the NL West lead and they're 9-0 in their last nine one-run games.

• We know that nobody in last place right now -- with the very faint possibility of Philadelphia, and I can't even believe I'm giving the phlat Phils a break here -- needs to worry about October.

• We know the Angels are terribly overrated (see E-Bag below), even though they're in first place in the awful AL West. We don't know if the Rangers have the pitching to hang with them, or if the Mariners have enough of anything.

• We know Miguel Tejada is the best shortstop in baseball. And we know that no one means more to his team.

• We know Roy Halladay is back. We know, too, that's not enough for the Jays.

• We know Roger Clemens could pitch until he's 60.

• We know it would take a collapse of '64 Philly-like proportions for Clint Barmes not to be the NL Rookie of the Year. He'll cool off as the season wears on and he wears down, but he seems to know enough about hitting to win the award going away.

• We know Chris Young is really tall (6-foot-10). We don't know whether the rookie right-hander for Texas can keep this up (3-2, 3.18 ERA).

• Yes, we know we still have a long way to go. And we know, we know. Things will change.

This one is more like E of the Season, just because the A's deserve it. After going 1-9 in the last 10 games, including five losses to the surging Yankees and eight straight setbacks overall, the A's now have, officially, the lamest lineup in the bigs. They're owners of one of the lowest on-base percentages (.310), which must be especially galling to GM Billy Beane. They also have the worst slugging percentage (.339) and, for you old-schoolers, a .236 batting average. Yuck. The A's have scored only 134 runs this season, an average of 3.6 a game, worst anywhere. What's it all mean? It's early, we know. But Oakland's streak of six straight winning seasons is in some serious peril.

Minnesota's Brad Radke may be the best control pitcher in the game, even if people forget about it -- or don't realize it. In 63 innings this season, he's allowed two walks. He gave one up on Sunday to Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira, the first time Radke had issued a free pass in 191 plate appearances. Radke is no strikeout pitcher, but he has the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the bigs (18:1).

"We can't be last in the league in hitting. I'm supposed to be a good hitting guy, aren't I?" -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, in The Philadelphia Inquirer

• I don't want to paint all Oakland fans with one fat brush, so I won't. Instead, I'll give a tip of the cap to the good fans, the ones who pointed out the boob who threw a beer at Jason Giambi on Saturday. Good for them. And I'll ignore the two idiots who ran around the field Sunday. But I have to ask: Why does it always seem to be Oakland?

• Albert Pujols didn't strike out at all this spring, then went 33 at-bats into the season before his first whiff. So how weird was Thursday, when Pujols struck out three times in one game against the Dodgers (twice against Derek Lowe, once against D.J. Houlton)? Well, it was really weird. The three-strikeout game was just the fourth of his career, the first since September 2001, a span of 512 games.

• I like the idea of this kind-of World Cup tournament baseball's taking on next spring (they're calling it the World Baseball Classic). But I'm afraid it looks a lot better on paper than it will be in the flesh. It's going to throw off Spring Training, it could mess up teams for the first months of the season ... it could be disruptive. Luckily, it comes around only every four years.

• The Cardinals' Scott Rolen will be out four to six weeks after shoulder surgery, and Jim Edmonds left Sunday's game with a sprained foot. This might be exactly what the rest of the NL Central needs.

• Before we get all worked up about the Rangers' Kenny Rogers (4-2, 1.49 ERA, 30 straight scoreless innings), we should remember that he started 12-3 last season before he regressed to 6-6, 5.46 ERA in the second half.

• Randy Johnson had the longest start of his career without striking out someone (seven innings) on Sunday. And if that doesn't throw some fear into the AL East -- the Yankees are winning even with the Unit not at his slider-wielding best -- well, don't say you weren't warned.

• One of the most impressive accomplishments of this season has been the Giants staying afloat with Barry Bonds -- and Armando Benitez, and now Jason Schmidt -- out of action. Luckily for them, they play in the NL West.

• Tino Martinez is on fire, but what about Philly right fielder Bobby Abreu? He's homered seven times in the past eight games. The Phillies (this figures) are 3-5 in that time.

• Kerry Wood moving into the closer role to save his shoulder? Somebody have him call John Smoltz. The Braves' ex-closer says it works the other way around.

On Friday, it's the full-fledged E-Bag. This is just to whet your whistle ...

Do you think Billy Beane's best decision was to not give Jason Giambi a no-trade clause, allowing him to leave for New York and not destroying the future of the small-market Athletics? -- Raymond Alvarado, Houston

In hindsight, that decision sure looks brilliant on Oakland's part. It's funny because, at the time, there was a lot of feeling that the A's should cave in to Giambi's demands for a no-trade. But Beane & Co., as they so often are, were way ahead of the curve on this one. These days, a lot of teams find it hard to cough up no-trades, for precisely the reason that the A's were afraid of it. The clauses handcuff teams more than the actual money involved. Some teams, like the Braves, never offer them, and I don't blame them. You'd think the outrageously high salaries would be enough.

Are the Angels another team with seemingly good parts that just don't seem to fit? They rank near the bottom in almost every category: last in OBP, 24th in runs scored (with only a two-run differential between runs scored and runs allowed), 27th in slugging, 27th in batting average and 29th in OPS. Sure, they happen to be in first place in the AL West -- an increasingly suspect division -- but what are we really to think of and expect from this team going forward? -- Elizabeth, Los Angeles

I thought the Angels would be much better. But, as Elizabeth points out, it's not all that much of a mystery. Steve Finley has been awful, Orlando Cabrera hasn't been much better, Darin Erstad's struggling ... just go down the lineup. Other than Vlad, no one's doing much good. Now Kelvim Escobar is hurt, Paul Byrd has been a flop, John Lackey's slipping ... the starting pitching's iffy, too. I expect, as the weather gets warmer, the bats will warm up. But I don't know about the starting pitching. The Angels still can -- and should -- win the AL West. But the division, as you point out, is suspect.

It needs to be said that MLB's steroid policy is extremely regressive -- guaranteed to punish the poor, young, foreign, unconnected and Spanish-speaking. As long as there are undetectable designer steroids available to those "in the know," the general public is left scratching its head trying to understand why those getting caught are minor leaguers, 170-pound no-names and foreign players (and perhaps those with truly low IQs). The sad reality is that this is a reason for the union to fight the proposal for harsher penalties -- a union is supposed to protect its weakest members. -- Ian S., Vancouver, British Columbia

What you're saying has some validity, Ian, but I'm not buying your last point. If the current policy with its fairly light penalties doesn't work -- and, despite Bud Selig's call for tougher penalties, I'm not sure that's the case -- toughening the policy certainly should do the trick, and that will be good for everybody in the game. Those "in the know" will have a lot to risk, maybe a lot more than others. And that'll make them think a lot before using. That only can help the "weakest members," as all players get to that even playing field everyone always talks about.

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