First-quarter trends: Will they last?

The Baltimore Sun

Observations, opinions and musings from the week in Major League Baseball: Baseball veterans will tell you they don't look at the standings, statistics or trends until the season's quarter pole.

Well, each team has played at least 40 games. The season is officially one-quarter over. It's time to analyze the clubs and players making noise (good or bad) and see whether the momentum - or lack of it - will continue. We'll apply the time-honored "Connolly Fluke Factor" to several, with the higher the number (out of a 1-10 scale) meaning the better the chance the performance won't continue.

A Florida recount

You deserve a free lifetime subscription to the baseball package - or at the very least, my job - if you correctly predicted that the teams leading the respective East divisions through 40 games would both be from Florida.

The Tampa Bay Rays are believable. Their offensive talent was obvious, and the starting pitching is intriguing. After seeing their No. 4 starter, Andy Sonnanstine, dominate the New York Yankees in the spring, I figured if he could be solid - and he has been - the Rays would have a formidable rotation. Anything that fifth starter Edwin Jackson gives them is gravy, and he's looking good, too. Besides, they have quality pitchers in the minors to bring up if the starters are injured or ineffective.

So, yeah, I'm not shocked that the Rays were in first place through 40 games for the first time in their brief history.

But the Florida Marlins? They had baseball's lowest payroll. They dealt away two of their most talented and recognizable players, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, for the future. They were supposed to be baseball's worst team. And maybe they still will be.

As Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar says enthusiastically and continually, however: "You don't play the games on paper, brother."

One big league executive said last week that the Marlins and Rays "absolutely" could sustain their runs because they have strong pitching and defense. Besides the Philadelphia Phillies, he said, the Marlins are the most complete team in the National League East. That's about as shocking as Florida finding $70 million for shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Marlins' Connolly Fluke Factor: 7. It has been a great ride, but they just don't have the depth to sustain it.

Rays' CFF: 3. They are probably a year early and, like the Orioles, have a tough divisional mountain to scale. But they have all the talent in the world.

The Snakes are biting

There was talk as to whether the Arizona Diamondbacks' 2007 playoff run was a little fluky. Then they added starter Dan Haren to a rotation that included Brandon Webb and a rehabilitating Randy Johnson.

They shouldn't be surprising anyone. But should they be the best team in the majors through the first quarter? Why not? They have some great young offensive players, a potentially excellent rotation and a patchwork bullpen that holds its own. When the dust settles, the D-backs should have one of the league's best records.

D-backs' CFF: 1.

The Yankees are reeling

Before Yankees haters get too excited, remember that last year's club was under .500 as late as July 7 and still won 94 games and made the playoffs.

You can never count out the Yankees.

That said, they have dealt with tough injuries (Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada), and their young trio of pitchers has been hurt, disappointing and theatrical. They are old in key places, so this could be the season in which their run of 13 straight postseason appearances ends.

Yankees' CFF: 5.

Finally D. Cabrera's year?

You would think I've been around long enough not to fall for one strong stretch, punctuated by one brilliant performance. Baseball, as the cliche goes, is a marathon, not a sprint.

We've all been teased by Daniel Cabrera's talent before. But the Orioles' 6-foot-9 right-hander seems different this year. His body language, his attitude, and, most important, his control is so much better.

Throw in a solid changeup and a two-seamer that is virtually hiding from bats, and those seven straight quality starts seem legitimate. After being in Kansas City and watching him get 18 ground-ball outs and seven strikeouts in a complete game - yes, I know it was the Royals - I've become a believer.

Cabrera's CFF: 3.

Chasing Babe if not Barry

The Houston Astros' Lance Berkman has been on an incredible run, which includes hitting 15 homers in his first 151 at-bats. That put him on pace for roughly 60 homers.

Remember, back in the day before syringes, 60 and 61 were magic numbers. So, will Berkman threaten the old home run milestone? No, and not because he isn't a bona fide slugger. He is one of the most underrated stars in the game. But every year one or two guys get off to otherworldly homer paces, and as the season progresses, they slow down and become mere mortals. A total of 40 to 50 - still an awesome output - is more realistic.

Berkman's home run CFF: 8.dan.

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