The first two weeks of the Major League Season are over and there are the typical suspects on the top, and a few teams getting the preverbal cup of coffee at the top of the division. Needless to say, there are few teams going out and showing that they have the stuff to contend in October, namely the Mets, Detroit, and the Cubs. But at this point it seems apparent who will be playing in the later months for something other than pride.
The Boston Red Sox are a team that has hit their stride, and that should strike fear into the hearts of the White Sox and Yankees, their only real challenges in a top heavy AL. The way that off season acquisition Josh Beckett is pitching, and the way Curt Shilling has regained his form puts the Red Sox starting rotation in a club of few teams that can rely on strong pitching to win games, and apparently it is pitching that wins playoff games. Who knew?
It has somehow become a fact that Boston is an offensive machine that should not be reckoned with, one that is unparalleled by all the other teams in the league; and there is some clout to that stereotype. Obviously the Red Sox offense is the most potent due to Big Papi and Manny, but the South Side of Chicago might oppose that with their own 1-2 punch, the American versions of the Dominicans, Jim Thome and Paul Konerko. Now obviously Thome and Konerko are not going to put up Manny and Papi numbers, because those two are pound for pound the best rakers in the league. But what Papi and Manny do not have is a totally balanced lineup both in front of them and behind them. When Scott Podsednik gets out of his slump, the White Sox will be an unstoppable offensive force. With Tadahito Iguchi, the league’s premier #2 hitter, moving Podsednik over, or in, the Thome and Konerko will seem to constantly find themselves in keen RBI situations. The man who used to hold the distinction of the premier #2 plays for Boston, Mark Loretta, but their leadoff man, Kevin Youkilis, who is a fine young ballplayer, is no Scott Podsednik, and on top of that, Manny does not have last year’s best home run hitting RF in Jermaine Dye cleaning him up. Needless to say, the White Sox might be able to shatter some of the preconceived notions of the Red Sox offensive dominance of the AL. This is incredibly revolutionary for this team who last year were knocked late in the year and at the beginning of the playoffs, never given a chance against the Beantown Boys in the ALDS, because of their lack of offensive production. Then again, the White Sox were one of only three teams who hit over 200 team homeruns last year, so it those notions seemed somewhat unwarranted. Then again, who cares what experts say when you set records, added another two aces to an already STACKED starting rotation, and win the World Series.
But the North side of Chicago is also going gung-ho for their beloved Cubbies, who, without their two stud fireballers, have managed to flirt with the division lead for the beginning of the 2006 season. There is lots of hope and optimism north of Madison these days, and the same stigmas that have been ‘holding down’ the Cubs for so long seem to be playing right into their game. Obviously, two of the three baseball ‘curses’ have been broken in the past two Fall Classics, and Cubs fans, if not for anything else, feel that they are only rightfully entitled to finish out the triumvirate of ‘curse’ breakers.
Nonetheless, the Cubs are playing good baseball, and a recent sweep of the Cardinals shows their potential for beating good teams, but the team truly has no shot at a crown until they can get back a healthy Prior and until they can start to score runs behind Juan Pierre and a small ball mentality, they will be slaves to the long ball, as they have relied on it to score the vast majority of their runs. The Cubs did do a good job revamping their bullpen, but the rotation is the missing piece preventing this team from being a .500 floating glimpses of greatness team to a true title contender who is defined by their pitching. The absence of Prior truly is detrimental to this teams rotation and its chemistry. While Zambrano might shave filthy stuff, he is far too emotional, and puts too much pressure on himself to be the leader of the staff, and while Greg Maddox might still be doing his job and getting people out, he stresses the Cub bullpen even more by not going anything more than 6 innings. Glendon Rusch Jerome Williams are just not rotation material, but continue to tease Cubs fans with stellar outings just frequently enough to whet the Dusty Baker’s appetite and keep them in the rotation. In addition, the lack of a rotation has Sean Marshall, a young man who never played above class A before now penciled in as the number 5 starter. Marshall has potential, but should be spot starting for the Cubs and regularing the AAA Iowa rotation to polish his skills. Lunging him into the majors so quickly might stunt his development, but so far he has done adequately enough for the team, keeping him at the big league level.
The addition of Prior would nearly sure up the rotation, and if Kerry Wood is healthy enough to get back into the starting 5 as well, those two healthy pitchers will launch the Cubs rotation into orbit as one of the league’s best, and reassure the future success of the team and its prospects.
And now everyone is going Shea about the New York Mets, who for some reason are considered the league’s best team. For a team with an aged rotation and an injury prone lineup, it would be wise to delay one’s judgment until they beat a team other than the Marlins and Nationals.
Detroit has gotten off to a hot start, thanks to the, for lack of a better term, lucky bat of Chris Shelton, who was truly due for a break out season, but has done more than that thus far, hitting eight home runs in twelve games. The commissioner’s office will be sending him a random test in the next couple of days as well. The Tigers might just have figured it out though, as the young arms the team has been bringing up for years have finally matured into bonafide starters. Mike Maroth, the ML’s last 20 game looser, is 2-0 with a .73 ERA, and that is no fluke. The ego of the team might have taken a strong jab from a sweep from the World Champions, but they are still strong enough to contend for a wild card, and if they get Chris Shelton lucky at the right time, possibly a division. What a far cry from a team that contended with the worst record ever no less than three years ago.