Guest Author - Joe Mancini
It's commonly believed that while you cannot win your division or lock up a playoff spot in April, you can lose it. The baseball season is long, and the teams themselves tend to divide it up by month, by week, by home stand and road trip, by turns of the pitching rotation. Without question, teams prefer to get off to a good start, it energizes the fan base, it brings better ratings on local TV and radio, improves attendance and generally puts everyone involved in good mood. Let's not overlook the importance of "mood" and "outlook" on game performance, I know the current emphasis on "metrics" and measurable results tends to discount "intangibles", but watching body language and comportment can tell you a lot about where a team is heading, over the short haul if not the long run.
This season, for example, the Atlanta Braves were considered to be a top contender in the National League, and in fact they have exploded out of the gate shrugging off the absence of retired fixture Chipper Jones and perennial All-Star catcher Brian McCann. It helps immensely when the "replacement" players like 3Bmen Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco and C Evan Gattis provide power and production. They've put together a modest lead over the favorites in the NL East, the Washington Nationals, and have positioned themselves for a good summer run into the autumn. The Braves don't rate as a surprise, but they are making Georgia proud.
Compare and contrast with the Braves' old town-mates, the Boston Red Sox. The Beaneaters were considered a top contender in 2012, with a star-studded lineup, but they stumbled early and collapsed into 90+ loss desuetude. They unloaded many of their high-priced players, let free agents walk, fired two-time World Series-winning manager Terry Francona, and signed and traded for new names while lowering their payroll. Despite the recent tragedy in Boston, Hub fans are greatly cheered by the performance of their Sawx, who reside atop the rough-and-tumble American League East.
Then there are the disappointments so far, and another AL East team, the Toronto Blue Jays, seemed poised to return to relevance after two decades in the nether-regions, with stunning trades and exciting free agent signings. So far, though, the Jays are struggling and bringing up the rear in a division that isn't going to get any easier. Doesn't mean they were wrong to make these moves, but so far they haven't panned out.
Joining the Blue Jays as a disappointment early on are the Southern California teams in Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Angels (OK the Angels are really in Anaheim but they have Los Angeles in their name, after all). The Dodgers suffered the untimely loss of their free agent prize, pitcher Zack Greinke due to a broken collarbone in a charging-the-mound incident with San Diego Padres' Carlos Quentin, while the Angels are languishing despite adding the top positional prize, Josh Hamilton, who has been a disappointment so far.
It's early, and nothing has been settled, but these trends are developing and shaping the fate of the 2013 MLB season.