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BASEBALL

At the quarter pole in MLB, crazy things are happening

A quarter of the Major League Baseball season is in the books, and quite a few unexpected things have taken place.

Here's a look at some of the biggest surprises of the first quarter of the 2012 campaign:

THE BALTIMORE ORIOLES ARE IN FIRST PLACE IN THE AL EAST

Breaking through against the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays in the rugged American League East is no easy task. However, the thought was maybe the Toronto Blue Jays, with a potent offense and pitching potential, would have a chance to challenge the big boys this season.

The Baltimore Orioles, though? Get serious. They've had 14 consecutive losing seasons since their last postseason appearance in 1997, including four straight last-place finishes.

How have they managed to grab the early lead in the division? Their bullpen has been terrific, posting a 2.25 ERA in 151 2/3 innings. Their offense is fourth in the league with 199 runs scored, and their 3.58 overall staff ERA is tied for third in the AL.

Statistically, they look like a contender. Can they remain one for the rest of the season? It still has to be considered a long shot, but the extra wild-card spot and the under-performance of expected contenders like the Los Angeles Angels, Red Sox and Yankees helps.

THE METS HAVE A BETTER RECORD THAN THE YANKEES

Admit it, New York Mets fans: If someone had told you that your team would be a game better than the Yankees a quarter of the way through the season, you would have signed up for it. That's exactly what's happened, and the rebuilding Mets, who let batting champ Jose Reyes leave during the offseason, are hanging on in the tight National League East race.

With a 21-21 record, the Yankees are probably performing below expectations about as much as the 22-20 Mets are performing above expectations, but the Mets' accomplishment is still noteworthy when considering their payroll is $93 million, compared to the Yankees' $198 million.

Could the Mets remain in contention? David Wright is having a monster season, and the team always hustles for manager Terry Collins. However, the Mets are currently 15th out of 16 NL teams in ERA. Their Opening Day cleanup hitter, Ike Davis, is batting .161 with five homers and 15 RBIs. Their bench and bullpen are among the weakest in the league.

So the guess is that the Mets probably won't end up contending in the NL East, and the Yankees will almost certainly finish with a superior record. Still, the Mets seem to be getting much more bang for their buck, and the gap between the New York teams is perhaps not as big as perceived.

ALBERT PUJOLS IS BATTING .212 WITH THREE HOME RUNS IN 170 AT-BATS

When Pujols signed a 10-year, $250 million contract in the offseason, nearly everyone realized it would look like a bad deal in his final few seasons. In the last year of the pact - 2021 - a 41-year-old Pujols will be making $30 million. He'll be earning $29 million in 2020 and $28 million in 2019.

Conventional wisdom was that if Pujols could lead the Angels to a couple of world titles in the early part of the contract, they'd be able to live with overpaying him in the later years.

Pujols is getting "just" $12 million this year, and that figured to be a big bargain. So far, it hasn't been. It would have been almost impossible to predict this much of a flop from the former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman. In 11 previous major-league seasons, his worst batting average was the .299 he registered last year. The fewest home runs he has ever hit were his 32 in 2007, and his lowest RBI total was his 99 last year.

Switching leagues figured to be an adjustment, but Pujols is slugging just .318. It's completely baffling.

THE ANGELS ARE IN LAST PLACE IN THE AL WEST

Pujols' epic under performance has been a big factor in this other surprise. Expected to fight defending AL West champion Texas to the finish this summer, the Angels not only trail the Rangers by eight games, they're also behind the mediocre-at-best Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners in the standings.

The Angels figured to have one of the league's best offenses, but they rank 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs scored. They've also been shut out an alarming eight times. Their hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired last week.

It's still early enough, but the Angels seem unlikely to unseat Texas in the AL West. However, if Pujols and the offense can get things in gear, the extra wild-card spot could aid their playoff chances.

PITCHING IS KEEPING THE WEAK-HITTING PIRATES AROUND .500

Pittsburgh figured to have one of the majors' most offensively challenged lineups, but the Pirates' early season production has been bad by epic proportions.

The all-time record for fewest runs scored in a 162-game season is 463 by the 1968 Chicago White Sox. The Pirates have scored just 123 runs for an average of 2.93 per game, putting them on pace for just 474.

Despite the poor offense, the Pirates are a respectable 20-22, and they owe it to a pitching staff that's fourth in the NL with a 3.38 ERA. The three teams ahead of them are the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins. The Nationals are led by Stephen Strasburg and the Dodgers by 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Pirates are keeping pace with a rotation filled with decent, but hardly great, pitchers like A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Charlie Morton. Those guys are going to have to keep carrying things because the Pirates' offense isn't going to suddenly become a juggernaut.

THE PHILLIES ARE IN LAST PLACE IN THE NL EAST

The five-time defending NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies have had to play the first quarter of their season without top hitters Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. As a result, it's not so surprising they only rank eighth in the NL in runs scored (172).

The starting rotation has been elite, as expected. The disappointment has been the bullpen. Closer Jonathan Papelbon (12 saves, 2.20 ERA) has been as good as advertised, but the rest of the relief corps hasn't been much of a bridge to him. The Phillies lead the majors with 32 quality starts, but their overall bullpen ERA is 4.96 through 103 1/3 innings.

The Nationals jumped out to a quick start in the division, but they've been hampered by key injuries. The Phillies are staying within shouting distance of NL East leader Atlanta, despite being in last place.

If Howard and Utley come back soon and produce anywhere near their typical levels, the Phillies will be a major threat to win their sixth straight division crown. Keep in mind, though, that this is an aging team. Right fielder Hunter Pence, at 29, will be the only starting position player under age 30 when Utley comes back.

THE CARDINALS' EARLY CY YOUNG CANDIDATE IS LANCE LYNN

Fresh off their unexpected 2011 World Series title, the Cardinals had to be excited about their pitching prospects for this season. After all, not only would ace Chris Carpenter be on hand, but so would co-ace Adam Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Well, Carpenter has yet to appear in a game this season, and the nerve irritation in his right shoulder is expected to keep him sidelined until at least late July. Wainwright, meanwhile, has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball, with a 5.77 ERA through his first eight starts.

Not to worry. Lance Lynn, the fill-in for Carpenter, is 6-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his first eight starts. Frankly, a healthy Carpenter could not have been much more effective than Lynn has been. He won't be able to keep up his current pace, but 15 wins and a 3.00-ish ERA seem like attainable numbers. Not too shabby from a fill-in fifth starter.

DEREK LOWE IS AN EARLY AL CY YOUNG CANDIDATE IN CLEVELAND

It's not all that stunning that Derek Lowe would put together a good quarter of a season. He's been a solid pitcher during his 16-year major-league career.

The odds were against him having the level of success he's enjoyed so in Cleveland - 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA. Last year in Atlanta, Lowe had the worst season of his career, going 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA.

Turning 38, the right-hander moved to a less pitcher-friendly ballpark in a less-pitcher-friendly league, and his results have somehow taken a turn for the better. Lowe might remain a candidate for comeback player of the year, but he likely won't need to clear space in the trophy case for a Cy Young Award. With just 15 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings, Lowe doesn't have the peripherals to maintain his ERA.

THE CUBS' BRYAN LAHAIR IS MAKING THE MOST OF HIS OPPORTUNITY

Although he's 29 and he's consistently torn up the minor leagues with his impressive power, the Chicago Cubs' Bryan LaHair came into this season just 195 major-league at-bats.

For whatever reason - perhaps a high strikeout rate - LaHair was tagged by many as a "Class AAAA" player, good enough to dominate in Triple-A but not good enough to succeed in the majors.

The Cubs put the 2002 Seattle Mariners' 39th-round draft pick on an Opening Day major-league roster for the first time this spring, and he has been better than anyone could have anticipated. Yes, he has struck out 45 times in his first 127 at-bats, but he's also batting .307 with 10 homers and a .614 slugging percentage.

LaHair has a chance to be on the NL All-Star team, and he's given the rebuilding Cubs a good problem. He was expected to just keep the first base position warm until top prospect Anthony Rizzo was ready to take over. Rizzo is tearing it up in Triple-A, and LaHair has experience in the outfield. Soon, the left-handed boppers could both be part of a revamped middle of the order sure to hit plenty of balls onto Sheffield Avenue.

THE PADRES HAVE HIT JUST 16 HOME RUNS

It's not surprising the San Diego Padres, who play half their games in spacious Petco Park, would be last in the majors in home runs. Still, a couple of things are interesting here:

-- The Padres have hit two fewer homers than major-league leader Josh Hamilton.

-- They have a chance to hit more triples than home runs for the season, having combined for 13 three-base hits.

-- Even though projected starting outfielder Carlos Quentin has yet to play this season because of a knee injury, he still might be considered the favorite to end up leading the team in home runs. He's expected back in a couple of weeks and he's only five homers behind team leader Chase Headley.

THE GIANTS' TIM LINCECUM MIGHT BE THE WORST STARTING PITCHER IN BASEBALL

You keep expecting the two-time Cy Young Award winner and 2010 World Series hero to become Tim Lincecum again, but it never happens. Lincecum has been in slumps before, but none like this. He has just one quality start in nine tries, and his ERA stands at 6.04. He's allowed 32 earned runs in just 47 2/3 innings.

There was no way to see this coming from the 27-year-old right-hander. Last year, despite a subpar 13-14 record, he posted a 2.74 ERA. To put it in perspective, if Lincecum pitches complete-game shutouts in each of his next six starts, he'd still only lower his ERA to 2.83. And there's been nothing to indicate that a return to form is going to happen.