FALSE START FORBRAVES ROTATION
Sure, ChrisShelton looked like Jimmie Foxx; Barry Bonds was chasing Bronson Arroyo, notBabe Ruth, in home runs (he trailed the pitcher by two at week's end); and apair of 40-year-olds, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, had two of the top threeERAs in the NL. But the biggest surprise of the first two weeks of the seasonwas that the Braves had the worst starting pitching in the majors. Until a JohnSmoltz four-hit shutout last Saturday, Atlanta starters were 0-5 with an 8.17ERA.
Find any excuseyou want: rainy conditions the first week; an adjustment from pitching coachLeo Mazzone, who left for Baltimore, to Roger McDowell; or a lack of springwork for Dominican righthander Jorge Sosa while on loan to his country for theWorld Baseball Classic. And with such a small sample of games, Braves startersare bound to pitch better soon. But a reliable rotation has been the foundationof Atlanta's run of 14 straight division titles, and without one the Braves arejust another team. They especially need Smoltz and Tim Hudson (right) at thetop of the rotation to reassert themselves. Says general manager JohnSchuerholz of his five starters, "It's uncharacteristic and it's surprisingconsidering how well they pitched in spring training." He added that nochanges are planned but was quick to point out, "We've never been bashfulabout making changes to our roster if we think they're needed."
How dominant isthe Athletics' Rich Harden (left)? After three starts this year the 24-year-oldrighthander was 2-0 with 20 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings, holding opponents toa .194 batting average. But this report, filed by a rival advance scout,provides a more definitive explanation of his prowess: "Don't even bothersitting on his splitter or his changeup, because even if you do, you won't hitit. Try to hit his fastball. Emphasis on try."
•Over the past twoyears the Royals turned down several chances to acquire outfielder Alex Rios(right) and others from Toronto for injury-prone and aging DH Mike Sweeney, whohasn't played as many as 130 games in a season since 2001. Now the 6'5"Rios, 25, is growing into his power, slugging .765 over the first two weeks.Meanwhile Sweeney, 32, started 4 for 32.
•No one throws abetter sinker than Brandon Webb. The Arizona righthander got 16 groundouts ineight innings last Friday, beating Houston 5-1. Over three starts his groundball outs outnumbered his fly ball outs 39 to 12.
•The decline ofrighthander Javier Vazquez is a long-term trend. In his past 50 starts, forthree teams combined since the 2004 All-Star break (postseason included),Vazquez is 15-21 with a 5.20 ERA. His latest club, the White Sox, has aready-made replacement in 22-year-old righthander Brandon McCarthy, who hasbeen outstanding in middle relief (2.00 ERA in four games).
Extra Mustard byBaseball Prospectus
DOES A NEW STADIUMHELP A TEAM?
The Cardinals unveiled new Busch Stadium on April 10, becoming the ninth teamsince 2000 to open a ballpark. The construction wave has been driven in part bythe notion that a new building helps a team competitively by increasing itsrevenue, which it can then spend on better players. In reality, however, thestate-of-the-art facilities have done little to boost success. Of the lasteight teams to christen new parks, only three--the Giants, Astros andPadres--have reached the postseason in their new digs. But like St. Louis, SanFrancisco and Houston were already established contenders when they moved. Thenew stadiums in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Detroithave yet to host a playoff game. Since 2000 teams in new parks have, onaverage, won at a slightly lower rate (.475) in each of the first three seasonsin their new homes than they did in the two seasons before (.480). So theCardinals may win the NL Central again this year and remain contendersthereafter, but that will have more to do with the work of G.M. Walt Jockettythan the effects of the new park.
> More fromTom Verducci and Baseball Prospectus at SI.com/baseball.