Early Birds Six teams that lost 90-plus games in 2003 got a jump on the favorites

June 20, 2004

When the Padres rolled into Boston for a three-game interleague
series last week, Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon, ambling
around the clubhouse before the opener, had a question: "Does
anyone know who plays for San Diego this year?"

Damon wasn't trying to be disrespectful, but it was a fair
question considering the Padres, who lost 98 games last year,
entered the series six games over .500 and tied for first in the
National League West. San Diego is one of six teams that lost
more than 90 games in 2003 but jumped out to promising starts
this season.

Though they lost two of three to the Red Sox and then two of
three to the Yankees in a weekend series, the Padres were still
tied for first place in their division and figured to be in the
middle of a three-team race with the Dodgers and the Giants.

Here's how the six teams who had surprise starts stack up for the
last 100 games of the season.


PADRES After finishing 36 1/2 games behind the Giants last year,
San Diego is the NL West's most complete team. The
rotation--including righthander Brian Lawrence (8-3, 3.79 ERA
through Sunday), who lost 15 games in 2003--ranked fifth in the
league with a 3.96 ERA, and an outstanding bullpen was led by
Akinori Otsuka and Trevor Hoffman, who had a combined 1.71 ERA.
On offense 23-year-old third baseman Sean Burroughs was hitting

REDS Forget Sean Casey's .368 average, Danny Graves's 26 saves
and Ken Griffey Jr.'s 18 homers. The most impressive stats
belonged to 31-year-old journeyman starter Paul Wilson (7-0, 3.18
ERA), who never won more than eight games in any of his five
previous seasons. If they can stay healthy, the Reds, whose
hitters were fifth in the league in runs and homers, have a shot
at winning the NL Central. But it's the majors' most competitive
division with five teams above .500 and separated by 3 1/2 games.


RANGERS Buck Showalter's young bombers were second in the majors
in slugging percentage (.468) and third in runs per game (5.4).
But for Texas to keep up with Oakland and Anaheim, the Rangers
will need their improved rotation (4.94 ERA, down from 6.24 at
the end of last season) to maintain the pace.

METS Splendid starting pitching from veteran lefties Tom Glavine
and Al Leiter (2.04 ERA in 24 combined starts) has kept them
afloat, but the offense (.246 average) needs help. The Mets have
the prospects and payroll to pull off a big trade, but just as
significant would be the return of infielder Jose Reyes, who's
been out all year with injuries.


BREWERS The bullpen, backed by closer Dan Kolb (17 saves, 1.14
ERA), is their strength, but it's overworked (a major-league-high
219 innings) and could run out of gas. As gritty as the Brewers
are--second in the majors with 34 games decided by two runs or
less--a lack of offensive pop will drop them from contention.

TIGERS They struck gold last winter--picking up free-agent
catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was hitting .358 with 45 RBIs, and
shortstop Carlos Guillen, acquired from Seattle, who had 10
homers--but an inexperienced rotation will cost them in the long

COLOR PHOTO: DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES The hot-hitting Burroughs helped the Padres climb into firstplace in the NL West.