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Ball Five

April 9, 2012

Five thoughts from the first week (half-week?) of the season

• The Cardinals look good

It’s obviously a small sample size (and we’ll remember this from here on out), but the Cardinals went 3-1, beating what could easily be two playoff teams in Miami and Milwaukee. While they were shutout by former Cy Young-winner Zack Greinke on Saturday, they did get the best of two aces – Josh Johnson and Yovani Gallardo – and soft-tossing lefty (a type of pitcher the Cards usually struggle against) Randy Wolf, who’s coming off one of his best seasons. The Cards’ .327/.384/.507 line ranks second, fourth and fourth, respectively, in each category.

It wasn’t just the Cards’ hitting getting it done, either. Cardinals starters went three for four in quality starts, and the only starter who didn’t get a QS was Adam Wainwright, who went 5.2 innings and allowed three earned runs, but only on four hits and one walk. The most hits allowed by a starter in any of the four games was five.

• The Phillies’ offense could be a catastrophe 

The Phils’ pitching was quite good over the weekend, with starters only allowing two earned runs in 22 innings. Cole Hamels looked mostly good today, striking out nine, but he failed to get out of the sixth inning. But even if you have great pitching you have to score to win ballgames. Each game against the Pirates this weekend was a one-run game, and the two Pittsburgh wins were both on walk-offs. However, adding today’s run total (2) to the rest, the Phillies have scored 10 runs in four games, and in the three games against the Pirates they weren’t facing off against any aces (Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald).

Even though Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are on the decline they’ll be welcomed back with open arms so the likes of Freddy Galvis and John Mayberry Jr. aren’t in the lineup every day. But the scoring woes should continue – as the Phillies’ run totals have declined each of the last two years – with only two offensive players on the Phillies (Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino) in their primes.

• The Yankees needn’t worry

Unlike the Phillies, the Yankees scored quite a bit but also allowed quite a few runs over the weekend, dropping all three games against the Rays. But the Rays, who started two (or three, depending on how you look at Jeremy Hellickson) elite pitchers this weekend, are a very good team, and used many different infield shifts to counteract the Yanks’ hitters. The Yanks won’t face off against many more teams who are as smart and well-managed as the Rays, and they’ll be able to score many runs and have enough pitching, especially a good bullpen despite Mariano Rivera’s blown save Saturday, to win enough shootouts.

• The Red Sox, on the other hand, should worry

The Red Sox were ready to get the taste of that terrible September out of their mouth but weren’t able to do so in Detroit, getting swept in a three-game series and outscored 26-14, the second-worst run differential through the season’s first weekend. Yes, they did face the Tigers, but that’s no excuse for a team ERA of 8.33 and a team WHIP of 1.74. Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon, the two pitchers filling in for the injured Andrew Bailey, combined to blow two saves in Sunday’s game, compiling a combined ERA of 63 (Aceves didn’t get any of the five batters he faced in the series out) over the weekend.

The Sox should be able to score this season, but there are quite a few holes in a lineup that’s in the same division as three other teams who have equal or better lineups. But the real concern is the pitching. Jon Lester had a manageable season opener, but Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz allowed 14 earned runs in only 8.2 innings. Beckett allowed five homers. Lester is the only Boston starter I have a good amount of faith in. Buchholz doesn’t strike out enough guys, and Beckett has been alternating good and bad years since his Boston debut in 2006. Also, I bet many Sox fans couldn’t even name their fourth and fifth starters – Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard – who have a combined three major league starts.

• The Diamondbacks look even better than last year

Arizona beat three of the best pitchers in the game in sweeping the Giants last weekend. Only one of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner made it through six innings, and all of them allowed at least four earned runs and two home runs. The D-backs have several guys in their primes or who aren’t even there yet – Chris Young, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero – as well as quality veterans, versatile options and a deep bench. They’ve also got some very good pitching, a quality bullpen and a couple of young pitchers (Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs) waiting in the minors to come up later in the season.

In what should be a weak division the D-backs could very easily have the best offense and pitching in the NL West. It’ll be hard to improve on last year’s 94 wins, but the Snakes have several pitchers and hitters in their primes who can be the core of a strong contender for several years.

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