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Baseball Surprises

   by Bryan Leonard - 05/18/2008

One aspect of handicapping that’s important to focus in on, especially now that we are several weeks into the season, is the mood of a team. Some clubs are off to better than expected starts, like the Rays, Marlins and Braves. Players on teams like this can be excited about coming to work each day and look forward to playing. Other times, players and teams can be disappointing because of high expectations or injuries.

It’s amazing, but the Florida teams, the Rays and Marlins, are having terrific seasons despite low payrolls, both sitting in first place! Tampa Bay just took 3 out of 4 from the Yankees and their $209-million dollar payroll. The baseball Gods must be having one heck of a laugh right now. They held the Yankees to 1, 2, 1 and 2 runs in the four games. A newspaper in New York reported that one of the Steinbrenner’s said that the Yankees 'have got to start playing the way the Rays are playing.' Boy, has the world turned upside down!

It’s actually great to be a Rays fan. The Rays agreed to terms that will keep starting pitcher Scott Kazmir with the team at least through the 2011 season. The Rays have locked up its top two starters (Kazmir, James Shields) along with Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Dan Wheeler. So how are they doing it? Tampa Bay is only 16th in the majors in runs scored. Yet, they are tops in the AL in steals and 6th overall in team ERA (third in ERA in the AL). With starting pitching so hard to find, starting the next several seasons with Kazmir and Shields atop the rotation shows that the Rays front office is making some savvy short and long term moves. Kazmir said, 'I love being here,' in what is turning out to be a great story. The Tampa Bay pitching has been noticeably good at home, where bettors have taken stock of the Rays’ 17-6 mark under the total.

Across to the other Florida coast is another surprising story, the first place Marlins. They are getting it done differently than the Rays. Florida ranks 11th in team ERA in the NL and has only 7 saves. The young starting duo of Mark Hendrickson and Scott Olsen has dazzled, but Hendrickson is a 33-year old journeyman who has never pitched even remotely this well. We all wonder when the wheels will fall off for him. The guy to watch is 22-year old Andrew Miller, the key piece the Marlins got from the Tigers in the Dontrelle Willis/Miguel Cabrera deal. He is still learning, but is off two very strong starts.

It’s the offense that is carrying this team, ranked sixth in runs and tops in home runs. Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez and Jorge Cantu have been sizzling. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez just agreed to a six-year contract worth $70 million with the Marlins. The National League's Rookie of the Year in 2006, Ramirez is obviously a cornerstone player the Marlins targeted. The 24-year old Ramirez, hitting .326, has a dangerous combination of speed and power. Once the team's leadoff hitter (he now hits third), Ramirez hit 29 homers last season and stole 51 bases. Florida's $22 million payroll is by far the lowest in the majors, and almost half that of Tampa Bay -- the next-lowest team, so the two have been great stories.

A team beginning to make a surge is the Atlanta Braves, winning 8 of 12. They are 7th in the NL in runs scored, but tops in team ERA despite just 6 saves. This is a team that made the right moves in the offseason, bringing back Tom Glavine while letting Andruw Jones walk. Jones is getting booed in LA where he has been a colossal $36-million dollar bust. Veteran third baseman Chipper Jones is hitting over .400 and shows no signs of slowing down. They’ve been terrible in one run games, which is why the have so few saves. By the way, the Braves started 25-11 under the total! Any team that’s tops in team ERA has a good chance of sticking around for the long summer haul of 162 games.

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