MLB's April Review: Rays, Red Sox, Greinke, Freese

At this time last year, Toronto was atop the AL East and Kansas City paced the AL Central. At season’s end, the Royals finished with the second-worst record in the AL and the Blue Jays slipped to fourth in their division with a losing record.

The month of April essentially means nothing in the 162-game season. However, there are still certain things that can be deduced from the extension of Spring Training.

The Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and St. Louis Cardinals are the three best teams in baseball. While it was a given that Tampa Bay would be highly competitive this year, not many people outside of the Rays organization expected them to hold the best record in baseball.

But if you ask the Rays, they made their investment in 2010 clear when they acquired Rafael Soriano for $7.25 million in the off-season despite the fiscally-conscious mentality of upper management. Their current payroll of $72.3 million is the highest in franchise history.

Add in the fact that all-star left-fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena are the highest paid on the team with salaries of $10 million and $10.125 million, respectively, and are both free agents after the season, and it becomes very apparent why this is the year of the Rays.

“2010 is important,” president Matt Silverman said earlier in the year. “We feel we have an opportunity for a special year.”

What is truly surprising in the AL East is the collapse of the Boston Red Sox. They spent their off-season signing free agent pitcher John Lackey to a five-year $82.5 million deal along with three defensive specialists, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, and Mike Cameron.

Their formula for winning was obviously focused on pitching and fielding, especially when they didn’t pursue Matt Holliday and made a lackluster effort at Jason Bay. The problem for the Red Sox is that their pitchers are struggling mightily.

Opening day starter Josh Beckett has an ERA of 6.31, No. 2 pitcher Jon Lester has a 4.71 ERA, Lackey a 4.5 ERA, Tim Wakefield a 6.59 ERA, and the recently healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka has an 11.57 ERA. The only starter to have an ERA of under 3 is Clay Buchholz with 2.97.

In addition, the return of Matsuzaka relegated Wakefield to the bullpen for the first time since 2004. The unhappy Wakefield allowed five hits, including three home runs in 2.1 innings during his first appearance as a relief pitcher.

Needless to say, the winning formula has not been winning lately as they are wallowing under .500 in fourth place in the division and just got swept by last-place Baltimore over the weekend.

In other news, Zach Greinke is still one of the best pitchers in the American League and he still has no run support or bullpen help in Kansas City. Although wins and losses is a practically worthless statistic, he is still winless thus far at 0-3 with a 2.27 ERA.

The reigning Cy Young winner has only given up three runs over 22 innings in his last three starts, including a tough 1-0 loss to the MLB-best Rays where Greinke pitched a complete game and only gave up four hits.

“It’s tough,” manager Trey Hillman said. “No run support for Zack. It happened last year, it’s been a continuing theme this year, and it’s a shame.”

As for the best rookie, Atlanta’s Jason Heyward is a tremendous talent but his numbers pale in comparison to St. Louis’s David Freese. Freese is second in the NL in batting at .358 and tied for 10th with 19 RBIs.

After beginning the season batting eighth, Freese has steadily moved himself up to the heart of the order after super sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Freese is a big reason why the Cardinals have the best record in the NL.

But it’s only May. The Rays’ impressive young pitching rotation could break down under the weight of success at any moment and all is not lost in Boston. In their last two starts, Lester has allowed zero earned runs and Lackey has allowed three and two. The Red Sox still have five more months to rectify their pitching woes.

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