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Pretenders or Contenders?
April 23, 2002

May is only one week away and 3 of the first place teams come from Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Montreal.  No, I'm not talking about hockey.  The Pirates, Twins, and Expos are making other teams stand up and take notice.  They are all leading their divisions, but for how long?

The biggest surprise is the Pirates, standing atop the NL Central at 12-5 after trading away their only veteran in the rotation (Ritchie) for cheap, young talent.  The cheap young talent, namely Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, have provided solid starts every time in the rotation thus far.  Aramis Ramirez is becoming one of the best offensive third basemen in baseball and Brian Giles is a bonafide star.

Upside:  This young group doesn't know any better and they've got nothing to lose.  They were supposed to be in dead last in what was predicted to be a strong division.  Giles and Ramirez are for real and Kendall provides leadership (and a hardnosed attitude) for the younger players.

Downside:  Young pitchers just don't hold up for entire season when they are expected to anchor a staff (see last year's White Sox team).  Any time more than one young, unproven starters are in a rotation, trouble will find itself before season's end.

Prognonsis:  St. Louis, Houston, and Chicago are too deep in talent not to snap out of their funk.  It is likely that one of them will continue to struggle, though, so a 3rd place finish with a record just on the south side of .500 should be attainable.

The Twins are a team that everyone thought was finished after they faded down the stretch last year, but here they are again in first place.  No position is filled with a superstar but at the same time, no position is weak.  The hitting is unspectacular yet solid.  The rotation:  ditto.  Guzman and Hunter keep this team strong up the middle and Radke, Mays (when healthy), Reed, and Milton should prevent the Twins from suffering any long losing streaks.

Upside:  Few weaknesses give the team a chance every day.  GM Terry Ryan is dedicated to winning this year, willing to give up some young talent for veterans down the stretch if the situation warrants.  Experience from last year's success will definitely help.

Downside:  The White Sox and Indians simply have more talent than the Twins.  The entire bullpen is shaky, putting more pressure on the starters.

Prognonsis:  While the White Sox and Indians have more potential, both clubs have too many holes to realize it.  The White Sox don't really have a starting rotation beyond Beuhrle and Ritchie and the Indians have too many new faces to be taken seriously this year.  Look for the Twins to plod along and win the division by a game or two (89 wins should be enough), only to get outmatched in the playoffs.

I can hear Joe Buck now, "We'll be right back with the start of Game 1 of the World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos."  Unlikely to happen, but an interesting thought nonetheless.  The prize for the winner?  Contraction, same as the loser.  That's okay because nobody would be watching anyway.

Ok, the Expos aren't that good but they are in first place for the time being.  In a year when the Braves have many question marks, the NL East is up for grabs.  With Vazquez, Vlad, Barrett, Vidro, and Cabrera, the Expos can match talent with anyone in their division.  The experienced yet young arms will determine the fate of this year's club.

Upside:  Experienced young pitching and Vladimir Guerrero are not the only pluses - the lineup is solid enough to protect Vlad and give the staff some run support when the pitching falters.

Downside:  Several regulars have nagging injuries and depth is a question mark.  Take Guerrero out of the lineup and you're looking at the Royals.  Is there another standout pitcher besides Javier Vazquez?

Prognosis:  Anyone can win the NL East this year, so the Expos have a chance, but I expect a fourth place finish with Philly, Atlanta, and New York finishing in front in no particular order.  The Expos have the talent but maybe not the intangibles and obviously an interim GM isn't going to make any deals to strengthen the club down the stretch.


- Has there been a better lineup 1 throught 9 than the Chicago White Sox in the past 10 years?

- Seattle Mariner's road record 2000-2002:  113 - 61.  Wow.

- Troy Glaus is quickly becoming Rob Deer in an Angels uniform, contrary to last week's prediction.

- Best callup of the year - the Braves' LHP Jung Bong.  Smoke 'em if you got 'em, JB!