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by Bryan Leonard - 05/08/2006
There seems to be a bit more parity in the 2006 baseball season, which is refreshing. Other than the NY Mets, no one team is pulling away from the others in most divisions. Letâ€™s take a look at some of the surprises to see if there are identifiable reasons.
Reds: Cincinnati has been a huge story in the NL Central. Home run production has not been a problem with this team the last few years, with guys like Adam Dunn, Rich Aurilia and Ken Griffey, Jr. It was always the pitching and defense that they were short on. However, this season things have changed. The trade for righty Bronson Arroyo significantly upgraded the pitching staff with his electric 5-0, 2.06 ERA start. He has never been an ace pitcher, as going 14-10 last season was the best in his career. But he has pitched like an ace thus far.
Combined with Aaron Harang (5-1), who was actually a decent starter last season, the Reds suddenly have an effective one-two punch atop the rotation. The rest of the staff still has holes, with Brandon Claussen (5.63 ERA) and Eric Milton not pitching well â€“ and unlikely to, which makes one wonder how long the Reds can keep surprising. One other factor to look at is steals. A year ago, the Reds ranked 17th in major league baseball in steals. Currently they are third, with Ryan Freel (8 steals), Felipe Lopez (10 steals) and Brandon Phillips (5 steals) providing some speed and thievery on the base paths. Cincyâ€™s .358 on base percentage is also tops in the NL.
Astros: No Roger Clemens? So what! Houston has improved its offense this season, fourth in the NL in team batting and second in on base percentage. Their strong start has been even more surprising without Clemens and with Andy Pettitte struggling (5.06 ERA, 2-4 record). Starter Wandy Rodriguez is another fine pitcher from this magnificent farm system and teams with ace Roy Oswalt, who is one of the best pitchers in the game. Remember how bad the Astros hit on the road last season, but they were so good at home? In 2005 Houston was 53-28 at home, 36-45 on the road! This season they appear similar: 14-4 at home, 5-5 on the road.
Tigers: You want to talk transformation! New manager Jim Leyland is having a ball with this young team, starting strong. The offense continues to lead the AL in home runs, while the pitching is No. 1 in the league with a 3.12 ERA. Consider that the No. 2 team in pitching is the Yankees with a 3.77 ERA and everyone else in the AL has a team ERA over 4! The starting pitching has been very good, especially with newcomer Kenny Rogers, but this bullpen throws gas with kids Fernando Rodney and Jamie Walker. Hmmmâ€¦.You might say they look a bit like the White Sox of 2005. Chew on this: The worse starting pitcher on their staff is Jeremy Bonderman, who has 36 strikeouts and 7 walks in 38 innings and only 29 hits allowed!
Rangers: Texas has plenty of hitting, as usual, but what has been most impressive is that the revamped pitching staff has been very strong. Newcomers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla have solidified the rotation, and John Koronka has been impressive. They still have bullpen troubles, but itâ€™s a bit easier to find relievers before the trading deadline than quality starters. In the tight AL West race, the Rangers might finally have the starting pitching to be a serious challenger.