We’re only 10 days into the MLB season and things are already starting to look a little – strange.
First off, the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs are playing good ball. Both teams revamped their rosters just enough during the off-season and are now reaping the benefits.
The Cubs went for speed, acquiring center fielder Juan Pierre and right fielder Jacque Jones. Then, via trades and their bountiful farm system, Chicago has allowed youngsters like Matt Murton, Ronny Cedeno and Angel Pagan to blossom. Combine this with an already powerful lineup (thanks to the presence of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez) and solid starting pitching (even with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the DL), and you have a Cubs team that is already starting to turn a few heads.
By going for speed and youth, the Cubs are clearly attempting to turn their home field of Wrigley Park into an advantage. Chicago had come to rely solely on the three-run homer the last few years, and the Cubs had suffered as a result. Wrigley is nothing but a pitcher’s park for the first two cold months of the season in Chicago, year in, year out. Manager Dusty Baker and GM Jim Hendry finally recognized this, and now the Cubs are beginning to look more like their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have been propelled by the awesome bat of first baseman Chris Shelton. Shelton, whose career up to this point has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, has come out of the gate like a monster. In only eight games, Shelton has a league-leading six home runs, 12 RBIs, and is batting .500.
Add in the fact that usual bottom-of-the-ladder teams like the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies are currently battling for first place in their respected divisions, and you already have an MLB season that is quickly becoming as intriguing as it is exciting.
The clearest trend to emerge thus far is that small-market teams are finally beginning to realize that their farm systems are their key to success. Rather than trying to compete in the free-agent market with annual big spenders like the Mets and the New York Yankees, teams such as the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tigers are relying on homegrown talent.
Where the Yankees have continued to attempt to control their destiny via the all-mighty dollar, small-market teams have begun to emphasize youth and the ability to groom potential stars from A-ball on up. Instilling an overall style and aesthetic in their players in the minor leagues, small-market teams are learning that the best way to compete with money is to counter it with smarts.
No team serves as a better example of this than the Cleveland Indians. Cleveland came within one game of capturing the AL Central Division last year, eventually choking and losing to the White Sox. This year, however, the Indians look primed to succeed Chicago. Moreover, Cleveland now possesses one of the most dangerous offensive lineups in the game. Led by Travis Haffner and Grady Sizemore, the Indians have jumped out to a quick 6-2 record and currently look like they can hold their own with anyone.
All of this said though, it is clearly the Boston Red Sox who have to go on record as the season’s biggest surprise. In slowly dismantling their championship 2004 team, the Red Sox once looked like they were messing with idiotic perfection. Boston allowed Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar to go their own way and many in baseball felt like the Red Sox were drunk on their own wine.
Yet Boston was in fact plotting a return to the World Series. The acquisition of pitcher Josh Beckett is once again making GM Theo Epstein look like a genius. And the Red Sox are currently doing everything that they can to make sure that it’s not another 86 years before they have a victory parade.