Trick or trend? Six early season MLB developments

Yes, it’s early. Until hitters get 100 at-bats, scouts don’t start to take stock in the numbers. But the media doesn’t wait. So, with the caveat that "yes, we know there are 150-plus games to go," let’s examine the staying power of early-season trends.

Three that will last

Minnesota’s strong start
Ozzie Guillen once nicknamed the Twins’ offense "piranhas" for its ability to eat away at leads one run at a time. But these Twins have more than speed. They have a lineup stocked with hitters capable of 25-plus homers — Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel/Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy. Who knows, this also could be the year that 24-year-old Delmon Young finds his power. Even without him, the Twins’ offense is in fine shape. "We have some guys who can put the ball in the seats," manager Ron Gardenhire says.

Jon Rauch has been perfect in save opportunities so far.
Jon Rauch has been perfect in save opportunities so far.

The bullpen, so far, has overcome the loss of All-Star closer Joe Nathan. Jon Rauch has converted all five of his save chances, but the key has been Matt Guerrier. The 31-year-old righthander might have been named the closer if Gardenhire didn’t value his versatility so much. "He can do so much — get out lefties, pitch multiple innings, pitch in the ninth — that I like him where he is," Gardenhire says.

Despite their fancy new park, don’t think the Twins will change their low-key ways. When Gardenhire named Rauch his closer at the end of spring training, there was no fanfare. On the team’s flight out of Florida, he walked up to Rauch, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "You’re closing."

Seattle’s power woes
Milton Bradley’s big three-run homer Tuesday night could be just what he needs to get on track. More than most, Bradley needs to feel good about himself to play well. The Mariners need him right. They took the plunge on him for his offense more than his defense. But after he had one hit in his first five games, he was dropped in the order. As bad as Bradley has been, however, his two homers represent half of Seattle’s total after its 3-6 start.

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney, both in what could be their final seasons, have combined for one extra-base hit. New first baseman Casey Kotchman and shortstop Jack Wilson are playing up to their reputations as defense-first players.

The Mariners’ defense has been as good as advertised for the most part, and the rotation will get a lift when Cliff Lee returns in May. But the offense might have to rely on Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins even more than expected. Bradley’s production — or lack of — could be the key.

The mess that is the Mets
At least the Mets had a positive opening day. They since have settled into last place and are playing like they plan to stay there. Manager Jerry Manuel called his lineup "unprepared" after Livan Hernandez shut them out for seven innings Sunday.

The rotation remains the biggest issue, and personnel changes might be the only way to change that. John Maine typifies the mess. He imploded in Denver on Tuesday night while throwing a fastball that rarely touched 90 mph. Though that was a tick above his velocity in his first start, his struggles are such that Manuel says the righthander’s spot in the rotation no longer is a given. Maine is scheduled to start Sunday night in St. Louis. Another outing like Tuesday night’s and that could be his last for a while.

Three that won’t

The Blue Jays’ lead in the AL East
The Jays, picked to finish last by Sporting News, look better than that. Vernon Wells is off to a strong start and 25-year-old lefthander Ricky Romero is showing the stuff of a No. 1 starter. Even without Roy Halladay, Toronto doesn’t appear ready to allow Baltimore to escape the cellar. But first place? Ahead of the big boys? That spot is about as secure as Manuel’s job.

The lack of a legitimate closer figures to catch up to the Jays, and Alex Gonzalez won’t rank among the home run leaders for long. He already has four homers after hitting eight last season. Travis Snider still looks like a hitter who was rushed to the majors, and the lineup remains thin after Wells and Adam Lind.

One positive: They don’t play the Yankees till June.

Don't expect Trevor Hoffman's struggles to continue.
Don’t expect Trevor Hoffman’s struggles to continue.

Trevor Hoffman’s blown saves
Hoffman’s past four blown saves have come against the Cardinals, the latest two over the weekend. Credit the first one to the hitter, Matt Stavinoha, who smacked a decent 1-2 changeup over the left-field fence. The second was the result of poor pitching. Instead of relying on his career-defining changeup, Hoffman fed Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday nothing but fastballs, according to a scout in attendance.

Hoffman’s fastball tops out at around 87 mph on a good day, fast enough to be effective when hitters are focusing on his changeup. Pujols and Holliday, however, aren’t like most hitters. Even when they are thinking changeup, they can adjust and crush a mid-80s fastball. Hoffman found out the hard way. Don’t expect him to keep the changeup in his pocket for long.

The Angels in last
The Angels are no strangers to slow starts. Last year, they overcame early-season injuries that put them in a 6-11 hole. This year, they are adjusting to life without four mainstays lost on the free-agent market. So far, not so good.

Not surprisingly, the offense misses Chone Figgins. Erick Aybar has settled into Figgins’ leadoff spot, but the bottom half of the order isn’t producing. No player has appeared more overmatched than Figgins’ replacement at third, No. 9 hitter Brandon Wood (two singles, one walk in 23 plate appearances). But manager Mike Scioscia won’t let Wood’s struggles get so out of hand that they cost his team. If Wood doesn’t hit, Maicer Izturis easily could slip into the starting role at third.

Still, don’t expect the Angels to run away with the division even when they get right. The Mariners don’t look like the team some (yes, me) thought they’d be, but the Rangers and Athletics are improved. The gap between the top and the bottom of the AL West isn’t as gaping as a year ago.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Yes, it’s early. Until hitters get 100 at-bats, scouts don’t start to take stock in the numbers. But the media doesn’t wait. So, with the caveat that "yes, we know there are 150-plus games to go," let’s examine the staying power of early-season trends.

Three that will last

Minnesota’s strong start
Ozzie Guillen once nicknamed the Twins’ offense "piranhas" for its ability to eat away at leads one run at a time. But these Twins have more than speed. They have a lineup stocked with hitters capable of 25-plus homers — Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel/Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy. Who knows, this also could be the year that 24-year-old Delmon Young finds his power. Even without him, the Twins’ offense is in fine shape. "We have some guys who can put the ball in the seats," manager Ron Gardenhire says.

Jon Rauch has been perfect in save opportunities so far.
Jon Rauch has been perfect in save opportunities so far.

The bullpen, so far, has overcome the loss of All-Star closer Joe Nathan. Jon Rauch has converted all five of his save chances, but the key has been Matt Guerrier. The 31-year-old righthander might have been named the closer if Gardenhire didn’t value his versatility so much. "He can do so much — get out lefties, pitch multiple innings, pitch in the ninth — that I like him where he is," Gardenhire says.

Despite their fancy new park, don’t think the Twins will change their low-key ways. When Gardenhire named Rauch his closer at the end of spring training, there was no fanfare. On the team’s flight out of Florida, he walked up to Rauch, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "You’re closing."

Seattle’s power woes
Milton Bradley’s big three-run homer Tuesday night could be just what he needs to get on track. More than most, Bradley needs to feel good about himself to play well. The Mariners need him right. They took the plunge on him for his offense more than his defense. But after he had one hit in his first five games, he was dropped in the order. As bad as Bradley has been, however, his two homers represent half of Seattle’s total after its 3-6 start.

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney, both in what could be their final seasons, have combined for one extra-base hit. New first baseman Casey Kotchman and shortstop Jack Wilson are playing up to their reputations as defense-first players.

The Mariners’ defense has been as good as advertised for the most part, and the rotation will get a lift when Cliff Lee returns in May. But the offense might have to rely on Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins even more than expected. Bradley’s production — or lack of — could be the key.

The mess that is the Mets
At least the Mets had a positive opening day. They since have settled into last place and are playing like they plan to stay there. Manager Jerry Manuel called his lineup "unprepared" after Livan Hernandez shut them out for seven innings Sunday.

The rotation remains the biggest issue, and personnel changes might be the only way to change that. John Maine typifies the mess. He imploded in Denver on Tuesday night while throwing a fastball that rarely touched 90 mph. Though that was a tick above his velocity in his first start, his struggles are such that Manuel says the righthander’s spot in the rotation no longer is a given. Maine is scheduled to start Sunday night in St. Louis. Another outing like Tuesday night’s and that could be his last for a while.

Three that won’t

The Blue Jays’ lead in the AL East
The Jays, picked to finish last by Sporting News, look better than that. Vernon Wells is off to a strong start and 25-year-old lefthander Ricky Romero is showing the stuff of a No. 1 starter. Even without Roy Halladay, Toronto doesn’t appear ready to allow Baltimore to escape the cellar. But first place? Ahead of the big boys? That spot is about as secure as Manuel’s job.

The lack of a legitimate closer figures to catch up to the Jays, and Alex Gonzalez won’t rank among the home run leaders for long. He already has four homers after hitting eight last season. Travis Snider still looks like a hitter who was rushed to the majors, and the lineup remains thin after Wells and Adam Lind.

One positive: They don’t play the Yankees till June.

Don't expect Trevor Hoffman's struggles to continue.
Don’t expect Trevor Hoffman’s struggles to continue.

Trevor Hoffman’s blown saves
Hoffman’s past four blown saves have come against the Cardinals, the latest two over the weekend. Credit the first one to the hitter, Matt Stavinoha, who smacked a decent 1-2 changeup over the left-field fence. The second was the result of poor pitching. Instead of relying on his career-defining changeup, Hoffman fed Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday nothing but fastballs, according to a scout in attendance.

Hoffman’s fastball tops out at around 87 mph on a good day, fast enough to be effective when hitters are focusing on his changeup. Pujols and Holliday, however, aren’t like most hitters. Even when they are thinking changeup, they can adjust and crush a mid-80s fastball. Hoffman found out the hard way. Don’t expect him to keep the changeup in his pocket for long.

The Angels in last
The Angels are no strangers to slow starts. Last year, they overcame early-season injuries that put them in a 6-11 hole. This year, they are adjusting to life without four mainstays lost on the free-agent market. So far, not so good.

Not surprisingly, the offense misses Chone Figgins. Erick Aybar has settled into Figgins’ leadoff spot, but the bottom half of the order isn’t producing. No player has appeared more overmatched than Figgins’ replacement at third, No. 9 hitter Brandon Wood (two singles, one walk in 23 plate appearances). But manager Mike Scioscia won’t let Wood’s struggles get so out of hand that they cost his team. If Wood doesn’t hit, Maicer Izturis easily could slip into the starting role at third.

Still, don’t expect the Angels to run away with the division even when they get right. The Mariners don’t look like the team some (yes, me) thought they’d be, but the Rangers and Athletics are improved. The gap between the top and the bottom of the AL West isn’t as gaping as a year ago.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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