Crazy 13s

I’m not really a superstitious guy, but I do have a fondness for the number 13 and any oddities related to it, because I was born on the 13th day of a month (November, if you feel like sending presents). So when three teams score 13 runs on the 13th day of April, I can’t help but see that as an indication that those teams should be the subjects of my column this week.

So, I’m going to take a look into the early-season performances of the New York Mets (13-4 winners over the Washington Nationals on Thursday), the Chicago White Sox (13-9 winners over the Detroit Tigers) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (13-5 winners over the Pittsburgh Pirates). It doesn’t hurt that I have extra interest in these three teams, because I picked all three to win their divisions in THT’s staff predictions at the beginning of the season.

Mets

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Mets went out and made some noise in the offseason by signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran in free agency, prompting their fans to get understandably excited about the upcoming season. The Mets then lost their first five games, didn’t get more than four games above .500 until a five-game winning streak in August made them 68-60, and then lost 15 of their next 18 to finish any playoff hopes.

This offseason, the Mets went out and made some noise by trading for Carlos Delgado and signing Billy Wagner, among other moves, prompting their fans to get understandably excited about the upcoming season. And so far, that excitement isn’t fadingm as the Mets are 7-1 and already have a four-game lead in the NL East.

A hot start obviously doesn’t guarantee anything (just ask the Dodgers, who were 12-2 with a 4.5-game lead a year ago and finished the season fourth in the NL West), but it’s always better to start 7-1 than 3-5, as the Mets did last year.

And the Mets haven’t run out to their hot start thanks to a bunch of close wins either, as they’ve scored nearly twice as many runs as their opponents this season (53-27).

So far, four Mets (Delgado, David Wright, Xavier Nady and Jose Reyes) are hitting at least .333 and five Mets (those four plus Beltran) have an OPS of at least .940. Obviously, this level of offense isn’t sustainable, but it’s better to be wondering how far the level of your players is going to fall than it is to wonder whether your players are going to start hitting at all.

Last year, the Mets got a combined .693 OPS from all of their first basemen. So far, Delgado has a .727 slugging percentage.

Beltran didn’t have more than three home runs in any month last season, but he already has three homers less than halfway through April this year.

Reyes posted a .686 OPS a year ago, and has a .590 slugging percentage right now.

The only hitters who are really struggling for the Mets are Cliff Floyd, who has a .698 OPS after posting an .863 OPS last year, and Anderson Hernandez, who’s hitting just .185/.185/.185. The only current concern for Mets fans regarding the team’s offense is that if second base continues to be a black hole, Omar Minaya may go out and do something stupid like trade Lastings Milledge for Alfonso Soriano.

The pitching has been just as good as the hitting for the Mets, as they have a team ERA of 2.84. Only two pitchers on the team have an ERA above 3.50: Jorge Julio at 16.87 and Victor Zambrano at 5.40. The only concern for the pitchers who are throwing well right now would be that Pedro and Wagner aren’t striking out as many people as you would expect.

There is a lot of season to play and the Mets do have concerns. They still don’t have a second baseman, Reyes still doesn’t know what a walk is and they still don’t have much depth in the rotation.

But for the team that many were picking to end Atlanta’s streak of division titles, the beginning of the season couldn’t have gone much better.

White Sox

The White Sox began defense of their World Series title by going 1-4 in their first five games, but they’ve gotten above .500 thanks to a four-game winning streak that has coincided with new acquisition Jim Thome‘s four-game homer streak.

Thome’s power surge has underlined just how much the White Sox needed to improve their offense if they wanted to try to repeat as champions. Last year, the White Sox had a .747 team OPS and were ninth in the AL in runs per game at 4.57. Paul Konerko was the only hitter who scared pitchers at all, and Jermaine Dye and Tadahito Iguchi were the only other hitters whose seasons could be considered good.

So White Sox general manager Kenny Williams decided to gamble and trade for Thome, who was terrible in an injury-shortened season last year but was one of the better hitters in baseball for 10 straight seasons before that. Thome’s made the risk pay off so far, hitting .370/.541/1.111 with six homers in 27 at-bats. If Konerko and Dye can hit the way they did last year, the White Sox suddenly have a very potent middle of the order.

The other big move Williams made this offseason was to go out and trade for Javier Vazquez, another risky proposition since Vazquez followed up his 4.91 ERA in 2004 with a 4.42 ERA last year. It’s only been one start, and against the Royals at that, but Vazquez struck out seven and allowed just two runs in seven innings in his first appearance with Chicago.

The White Sox still have a lot of concerns, as Scott Podsednik, Juan Uribe and rookie center fielder Brian Anderson aren’t hitting and Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia have both struggled in their first two starts. But the importance of the past offseason is already showing for Chicago.

It would have been easy to look at the team that won the World Series and decide to bring it back for another try. Instead, Williams realized he was fortunate that the pitching staff was amazingly healthy (and more effective than could have been expected) and that the sub-par offense didn’t cost the team a shot at the title. He went out and addressed both potential problems, even though either move could have (and still could) backfired.

Dodgers

The Dodgers’ big win Thursday left them at 5-5 for the season, which isn’t terrible when you consider that they’ve been hit with injuries to two guys they were hoping would bounce back from injuries and be key contributors. Closer Eric Gagne is out 6-8 weeks after having surgery for the second year in a row, and Nomar Garciaparra is back on the DL with a strained muscle and doesn’t look like he will be ready when he’s eligible to come off the DL.

Not only have they lost those two, but Jeff Kent and Rafael Furcal are both hitting terribly, and only one of the team’s starting pitchers has an ERA below 6.00 (Brad Penny has been very good with a 1.50 ERA in his two starts).

So how have the Dodgers managed to stay afloat so far? Well, it’s been in large part thanks to the contributions of a trio of unlikely hitters.

Today’s hero was Cody Ross, who probably had the best fantasy baseball game of the season so far by going 3 for 5 with two homers and seven RBIs. Ross, who now has an OPS of 1.750 for the season, entered Thursday’s game with eight RBIs in his short major-league career, and he’s likely to be the player sent down (if he clears waivers) when Garciaparra is ready to return.

Unlikely hero number two is Jason Repko, who is hitting .324/.405/.541 (.946) in 37 at-bats this season as the team’s center fielder. Last year, Repko filled in at all three outfield positions for the Dodgers, but he only managed a .665 OPS in 276 at-bats.

The third unexpected slugger is Jose Cruz Jr., who is hitting .385/.457/.538 (.995) in 39 at-bats. Cruz looked about done after both the Diamondbacks and Red Sox gave up on him last year, but he signed on with Los Angeles and finished the season on fire by hitting .301/.391/.532 (.923) in 156 at-bats. The Dodgers decided to bring him back this year, and so far the move has paid off.

These three guys won’t continue to hit this well (and Ross may not even continue to be on the team), but they’ve already helped the Dodgers weather some early injuries and struggles by more heralded players. J.D. Drew (.951 OPS) and Bill Mueller (1.210 OPS) have also carried the Dodgers, who are hitting a ton (6.9 runs per game) but giving almost as much away on the mound (5.9 runs per game).

The Dodgers might not need their pitchers to be great this year, but they’re going to need a bit more than they’re getting right now. After all, it’s pretty unlikely that a team that plays in Los Angeles is going to lead the majors in runs scored.

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