Projecting the MLB season after a week of games

The first week of the season is a dangerous thing.

There is so much anticipation leading into Opening Day, building over the winter months, exciting the hopes and nerves of fans and reporters and coaches and players alike.

Everyone’s ready and confident, and then the first week of the season addles everything.

Ozzie Guillen loves Fidel Castro. The Mets win their first four games; the Red Sox lose five of their first six. Barry Zito outpitches Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. Mariano Rivera and Jose Valverde blow their first save chances of the season; Sergio Santos blows his first two chances; the Padres can’t even get in position for a save chance.

In the backs of our minds, we know that it’s too early to draw conclusions. We know this isn’t the NFL, with its pessimistic statistics for teams losing in the season’s first few weeks. The Rays lost their first six games of 2011 (on their way to a 1-8 start) before righting the ship. We know better than to confuse a 3-0 start for the Baltimore Orioles with a newly rising powerhouse in the AL East.

But that building of anticipation for the season, that eagerness for results, highlights and scuttlebutt, plays havoc with our sense of reason.

Why? For the same reason good news causes a child to whoop while an adult merely smiles: In the child’s life, populated by fewer memories and experiences, each day brings new heights of emotion. An adult, with far more experiences to draw from, has a greater sense of perspective. 

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It’s the same in early April for a baseball fan. The start of a season is the start of a new collection of memories. Last season is forgotten, as is every season, unless a string of poor teams prompts the need for self-comforting nostalgia.

For the ballplayer himself, it is much the same. The events of 2011 do not matter beyond possible lessons in how to weather a slump or deal with a specific pitcher. Forget the past; think only of the new season, with its schedule filled with opportunity.

Then the season opens, and things begin to go sour.

The Dodgers’ James Loney began the season hitless in his first 14 at-bats; the Royals’ Alex Gordon took 19 at-bats before finding his first hit. Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo served up seven hits, six runs and five walks to the Cardinals. Boston’s Josh Beckett surrendered five home runs to the Tigers. Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano was torched by the Orioles to the tune of eight hits and six runs in four innings.

The question arises in our opening-week-addled minds: Yes, it’s early – but is it really too early?

It’s certainly not too early for Yankees writers to question Joe Girardi, Cubs writers to lament their miserable ballclub, and Red Sox writers to bash their executives and players alike.

If Sergio Santos had blown his Wednesday afternoon chance against the Red Sox, would it really have been too early to consider removing him as closer? It took only four games for Kansas City to sit the scuffling Alex Gordon. (They later used him as a pinch-hitter. He struck out.)

You can already see teams separating themselves. The Tigers entered 2012 considered the class of the AL Central and they’ve wasted no time piling up quality victories and situating themselves atop the division. The Cardinals have similarly rocketed to the top of the NL Central, while the Rangers have pushed to the lead in the AL West. No one doubts the talent of any of these teams, nor that they all have the capability to create a sizable cushion for themselves in a hurry.

Can you blame a team like the Royals, then, for sensing that they can’t fall too far behind in the early-going? Not one bit. A victory in April counts exactly the same as a victory in September, coming with the added bonus of a home crowd still believing in the chance of a postseason run.

The Blue Jays provided the prime case of reacting proactively, demoting starter Brett Cecil to Double-A in favor of rookie Joel Carreno just prior to the season after Cecil struggled in his final spring training start.

There was no fooling around in Toronto; they foresaw potential trouble and took an immediate step to forestall it. (Now if only Ozzie Guillen had the same sense for potential trouble on the horizon…)

One week into 2012. It’s early – and fortunes are already being written.

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