Monday, April 26, 2010

Padres, A's, Nationals: Which Sleeper Team Could Be For Real?

The 2010 Major League Baseball season is still young, but a glance at the standings reveals a few unexpected teams at or near the top as the weekend came to a close.

The San Diego Padres, Oakland A's and Washington Nationals were all projected by pundits to be bottom feeders, but all find themselves turning heads with their strong starts. All three teams have been amongst the worst in baseball over the past couple seasons.

Is this a temporary alignment of the sun, moon, and stars— or could any of them be for real and find themselves in the thick of things when September rolls around?

It has happened before.

After finishing with the worst record in baseball the year before, the Tampa Bay Rays captured the AL East and advanced to the World Series in 2008.

One year earlier, two former last place clubs found themselves competing against each other in the 2007 NLCS. The Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Colorado Rockies before the magical run ended in the Fall Classic at the hands of the Boston Red Sox.

The Atlanta Braves (1991), Minnesota Twins (1991), and Philadelphia Phillies (1993) all experienced the elation of going from worst to the World Series. The Twins took it one further when they were crowned champions of baseball.

And, interestingly, the Padres have already been down this path. After being a cellar dweller in 1997, Trevor Hoffman, Kevin Brown and Greg Vaughn led them to the Fall Classic.

Could history repeat itself?

Washington Nationals

The Nats began last season with the excitement of debuting a beautiful new ball park, then went onto rack up the most losses in major league baseball. They were buried at the bottom of the NL East from start to finish ultimately losing 103 games.

Interestingly, though, they ended the season improbably with a seven game winning streak. Could that have been a foreshadowing of the 2010 season?

The emergence of some young talent has given reason for hope. Nyger Morgan and Ian Desmond have strengthened the defense up the middle and provided a solid one-two punch at the top of the lineup. Flame thrower Stephen Strasburg and hot prospect Drew Storen are on the way.

Also, the offseason addition of veterans Ivan Rodriguez, Matt Capps, Jason Marquis, and Adam Kennedy has provided leadership and experienced talent.

Combine these players with incumbents such as Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Christian Guzman and Josh Willingham— and you might just have a legitimate team. Based on the early returns, it sure looks that way.

The Competition: Who Might Burst Their Bubble?

The NL East favorite Phillies sit atop the division with an 11-7 record, while the anticipated main challenger Atlanta Braves reside in last at 8-10.

In between lies the other three teams in the division, just 1 1/2 games off the pace at 10-9. Seeing the Nationals as part of that triumvirate is clearly a greater surprise than the rebounding Mets or the forever upstart Marlins.

After a strong start, the Phillies are leaking a little bit of oil. Some key players such as Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and JA Happ currently reside on the DL, while the non-Roy Halladay portion of the rotation has been largely shaky.

Overall, their appears to be strong competitive balance throughout the division, especially with the Nats emergence.

The Outlook: Will It Continue?

Although Washington is clearly improved, they face an uphill struggle playing within a division filled with clubs that have improved. The current scheduling format pits these five teams against each other 18 times each.

The Phillies still appear to be the class of the National League with their best baseball in front of them when they are at full strength. However, if injuries linger and their starting pitching struggles the door could be open for another team to capture the division.

Expect the Nats to embody their name by remaining pesky throughout the season. In the end, though (even with phenom Stephen Strasburg potentially joining them), they probably do not have enough pitching to make a serious run.

But, wait 'til next year.

San Diego Padres

Competing in a division full of playoff contenders with the Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, the Padres find themselves in first place with an 11-7 record thanks to an eight game winning streak. To say this is a big surprise is a bit of an understatement.

Despite former ace Jake Peavey now wearing a White Sox uniform, the Padres are still winning the old fashioned way— with pitching. They are currently third in all of baseball with a paltry 2.87 ERA, led by Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, Wade LeBlanc, Chris Young and Heath Bell.

Good pitching is the key to any hopes they have as their offense struggles to score runs. San Diego is batting .246 as a team, but have found ways to manufacture runs and win close games.

Corner infielders Chase Headley (.371 AVG, .421 OBP) and all-star Adrian Gonzalez (6 HR, 14 RBI, .317 AVG) provide the thunder. The Padres augment that with aggressive base running and good team speed, racking up 20 steals to rank third in MLB.

The Competition: Who might burst their bubble?

The Padres have the misfortune of being in arguably the toughest division in all of baseball. The Dodgers took the crown last year and advanced to the NLCS.

The Rockies were the N.L.'s hottest team over the second half of last year on the way to capture the Wild Card slot. They were knocked off by the powerhouse Phillies in the NLDS, but the majority of baseball experts predicted them to continue their winning ways and grab the NL West title.

Tracking on both teams' heels was to be the Giants, powered by the best starting rotation in the National League, if not the Major Leagues. Like the Padres, they will be limited in run production, but stellar pitching has a way of adding to the win column.

The Outlook: Will it continue?

The other teams in the division are just too strong for the Padres to remain in contention.

The Giants have better pitching. The Dodgers have a far superior lineup and better balance. The Rockies just have an overall better team.

San Diego has solid pitching, but it is not good enough to carry an anemic offense. The team just does not have the fire power to compete over the long haul.

Speculation all winter centered on the prospect of the small market Padres moving their slugging first baseman. If the club comes back to earth and settles in where expected, chances are that Gonzalez will be moved before the deadline.

Oakland Athletics

Oakland is using a very similar formula as the Padres. Their lineup is one of the most anonymous in baseball, but their pitching provides the heavy lifting.

That formula has produced a 12-8 record thus far that puts them on top of the NL West.

Although the A's have hit just 12 HR's and are 19th with a .253 team average, they

are ninth in runs scored. The combination of scratching out enough runs to complement the fourth ranked pitching staff (2.93 ERA) has translated into their current .600 winning percentage.

First baseman Daric Barton has provided offense unconventionally considering his position is where sluggers usually reside. Barton has failed to hit a home run, but is batting .328 with a .488 OBP. Right fielder Ryan Sweeney has also been an offensive leader with a .306 batting average, but he, too, has failed to go yard.

The team's greatest strength has been its starting rotation. Justin Duchscherer (2-0, 1.82 ERA), Brett Anderson (2.35 ERA), Ben Sheets (2.74 ERA), Dallas Braden (3-0, 2.77 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 3.68 ERA) have been rock solid.

They are backed up by hard throwing closer Andrew Bailey, who turned an excellent rookie campaign a year ago.

The Competition:

The Los Angeles Angels are considered the favorite to repeat as the AL Western Division champion. The Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers were expected to give them a run with the young A's bringing up the rear.

However, this division might be the most likely for an upstart team to find success. The Angels are not the same powerhouse that won 97 games in 2009, and the others have weaknesses.

While the other teams improved over the winter, the Angels lost several key players. Vladimir Guerrerro and Chone Figgins departed for Seattle and Texas, respectively. Top starter John Lackey signed on with Boston, while valuable reliever Darren Oliver also made his way to Texas.

The Mariners made big news in the offseason when they landed former Cy Young pitcher and 2009 postseason hero Cliff Lee. He joins to existing ace Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation to form the most dominant duo in all of baseball.

The Rangers will hit bombs and score runs, but have so-so starting pitching. While the Mariners boast two stoppers, they will still labor to put runs on the board.

The Outlook:

The AL West could go down to the wire with all four teams in contention. With the Wild Card likely to come from the AL East, a postseason appearance will require ending up on top.

If Sheets stays healthy and pitches to his potential, and the offense can continue to scratch out runs without the long ball, the A's have a shot.

The "X" factor for Oakland could be two top prospects waiting in the wings. Chris Carter is a first baseman/outfielder with 30-40 home run potential. Outfielder Michael Taylor was acquired from Philadelphia, where he tore things up in the minors. Both could join the big club before long and bring some much needed fire power.

The Final Word

These three upstart teams have opened some eyes in the early going. With almost 90% of the season yet to be played, it is difficult to make too much of their performances thus far.

My suspicions are that the Padres will be the first to fall back to Earth, particularly in the rugged NL West.

The Nationals will have a similar struggle, but will draw much closer to the pack.

With possible reinforcements coming from the minors, the A's could be the surprise team of baseball. A last to first place scenario is not out of the question, but I expect them to just fall short. Stay tuned.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles and MLB for the

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