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April Surprises

   by Al McMordie - 04/18/2011

There have been surprises already in the first two weeks of the baseball season. The small payroll Royals and Indians have been great, and the high-priced Red Sox have been awful. The Phillies have been as good as advertised while the Rockies might have regained their 2007 form when they won the NL.

The Texas Rangers weren't getting a lot of respect when the season started, mainly because many thought they were lucky to make the 2010 World Series, plus they lost ace Cliff Lee to free agency. Yet, here they are, playing very well with an offense ranked No. 7 in runs scored, No. 4 in slugging, and a pitching staff that (can you believe it?) is even better, No. 2 in baseball in team ERA! Who needs Cliff? They want to keep Matt Harrison as a starter because the Rangers are 27-10 in his last 37 starts, while some guy named Nolan Ryan has put together a very impressive relief corps.

The offense has been great despite losing star Josh Hamilton for two weeks, plus the top part of the batting order has yet to get going. The first two hitters in the Texas Rangers' lineup are the possessors of two of the bottom three batting averages on the team. Leadoff man Ian Kinsler finished the second of three games at Yankee Stadium hitting .184. That was 10 points higher than No. 2 hitter Elvis Andrus and two points better than No. 9 hitter Julio Borbon, Hamilton’s replacement. David Murphy will move from left field to center at times. Murphy has played 42 games in center in his career. He can't cover as much ground as the speedy Borbon, so he might be a better fit in smaller ballparks, but he has the stronger, more accurate arm.

The Rangers are 17-4 at home when C.J. Wilson takes the hill and they are 24-11-1 under the total versus a starter with a WHIP less than 1.15. The Rangers have discussed returning to a seven-man bullpen and adding a fourth bench player, but they haven't yet arrived at a firm decision. The Rangers are waiting to see how the bullpen roles shake out before making a move for a position player, possibly a catcher.

When you're winning, there's no hurry to make moves. That's not the case in Boston where the high-priced Red Sox have been April flops. This team will hit offensively and score plenty of runs by the time the season is over, but there are a number of problems. New slugger Carl Crawford has been awful, probably because he's trying to impress after signing a $142-million contract, swinging at every pitch. He and Jacoby Ellsbury have been a disaster in the leadoff spot, which is odd as both should excel there. They're just not hitting right now. And the catching situation is a concern, providing no offense with aging Jason Varitek and newcomer Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Plus neither can throw runners out. Last week the team went 11 of 70 (.157) with 60 left on base over six games.

The pitching staff has even more problems. They already skipped a start by No. 2 starter John Lackey because of a rainout, a guy they gave a huge contract to a year ago -- one they regret -- as the aging Lackey hasn't impressed. And No. 5 starter Dice-K Matsuzaka has been a catastrophe, a guy who seems to have lost it quickly (though he was masterful Monday morning vs. Toronto). After trading so many prospects to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and their high payroll, there really isn't any flexibility for management, so the team you see will have to march on and either sink or swim.

The Minnesota Twins have had nothing but bad luck, losing star slugged Joe Mauer for two weeks. And they are moving Joe Nathan into a setup role after the closer blew his second save in three games Saturday night. Nathan will be replaced by Matt Capps.

Nathan, who didn't pitch last season after undergoing right elbow ligament replacement surgery, has an 8.44 ERA in 5 1/3 innings for the struggling Twins, who have lost six of seven. Capps, who also was tagged with a blown save last Thursday, has allowed four earned runs over eight innings for a 4.50 ERA. It appears Nathan was pressing to regain his All-Star form and thought he was hurting the team as a result.

When you haven't won a World Series title in 103 years, your franchise will get extra scrutiny, which is the case once again with the Cubs. The Cubs are looking to get some production from their left-handed hitters, who've been almost non-existent in the early going, with the exception of Kosuke Fukudome's .333 average. Newcomer Carlos Pena is hitting .200 with no home runs and 4 RBI, Tyler Colvin is at .135 with 2 homers and 6 RBI, and Blake DeWitt is 1-for-9 (.111). The Cubs are 10-3 under the total in the team's last 13 times during Game 1 of a series.

But it's always about the pitching and the biggest problem for the Cubs starts there. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and newcomer Matt Garza all have ERAs over six! Uggh. So what do they do? What they will not do is move Sean Marshall back into the rotation. With 59 career starts under his belt, Marshall would seem to be a good choice to move into the rotation after the injuries to Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner.

But Cubs manager Mike Quade considers Marshall too valuable in his current role as setup man and said he's considering either Jeff Samardzija or James Russell to jump into the rotation this week. Marshall said going from the bullpen to the rotation "gets you out of your rhythm" and that he's very comfortable where he is now. October seems a long way off for the Cubs in more ways than one. Think they will be in the market for some arms before the trade deadline? Yes. Maybe even next week! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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