- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
GOODYEAR, Ariz. - When the late, great Mike Flanagan served in the Baltimore Orioles' leadership in 2005, the team got off to a strong start, winning 30 of their first 46 games. I called "Flanny" in late May and asked him whether he thought they would be aggressively adding players before the trade deadline.
He was always honest with me, and he told me that, no, the Orioles probably wouldn't be making big deals. The fact is, he explained, Baltimore's start was partly the product of a favorable early schedule, and there was an expectation within the front office that there would be regression. If the team held its ground in the next seven weeks, then, yes, it might do something noteworthy, but the sense was that there was a bill to pay because the schedule was about to get tougher. Which is what happened.
Other general managers have offered different variations of that through the years, relative to their teams. Front offices pay attention to strength of schedule and evaluate it to help frame their decisions.
A projected strength of schedule doesn't always apply, of course: The Pittsburgh Pirates had a 70-60 record late in this past August, and 13 of their final 32 games came against the lowly Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs -- and Pittsburgh still couldn't get to .500. But sometimes it does: The Phillies had an incredibly easy schedule at the outset of last year, and when they started poorly and were unable to take advantage of that pillow-soft slate of games in April and early May, it was a sign they would never be able to fully dig themselves out.
As I wrote here earlier in this offseason, the fact that the Astros have shifted from the NL Central to the AL West is expected to hurt the playoff chances for the teams they left behind -- along with teams in the AL East and Central -- and markedly enhance the odds for teams such as the Angels, Rangers and Athletics.
Here is a ranking of the American League schedules, toughest to easiest -- which include a crazy quirk in the slate of the Tigers and White Sox.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last season: 26 of their first 39.
Home/Road: 19 of their first 39 will be at home.
Schedule notes:We should get a strong indication by the end of May whether Kansas City can be a serious player in the AL races because its schedule in the second month of the season is absolutely brutal. From April 30 to June 2, the Royals will play 29 of 32 games against teams that had records over .500 last year. Did we mention May will be brutal?
The hurdle ahead: The Royals seemingly didn't catch a break with their interleague matchups in the first half, either: the Phillies, Braves and Cardinals.
2. Houston Astros
Games against teams with records of .500 or better in 2012: 31 of their first 41.
Home/Road: 22 of their first 41 will be at home.
Schedule notes:Look, they're playing in the same division as the Athletics, Rangers, Angels and Felix Hernandez, so it's going to be tough no matter how it's drawn up for them. But in the first quarter of the season, the Astros also have road series in Boston and New York and two series against the Tigers. Yeesh.
The hurdle ahead: Thirteen of their 19 games against the Angels will be played before the All-Star break.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better in 2012: 30 of their first 41.
Home/Road: 20 of their first 41 are at home.
Schedule notes: Like the Astros, they play in a tough division, and the difficulty of their slate reflects that. The Mariners will play a four-game series against each of their significant division rivals in the month of April - a four-gamer against the Athletics, against Texas, against the Angels. So, there's a good shot that Felix Hernandez will be pitching at least one game in each of those.
The hurdle ahead: The Mariners open the season with seven games on the road -- the four-game set at Oakland, then three against the White Sox.
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last season: 25 of their first 41.
Home/Road: 19 of their first 41 will be at home.
Schedule notes: The Angels get to experience the first interleague quirk, opening the year against the Reds, in Cincinnati, before continuing on the road to play Texas.
The hurdle ahead: The Angels can look forward to playing the bulk of their scheduled games with the Astros and Mariners (roughly 2/3 of them) in the first half.
Games against teams with records .500 or better last season: 23 of their first 41.
Home/Road: 21 of their first 41 will be at home.
Schedule notes: Only three of their first 16 games are within the AL East, but from April 19 until May 26, they will face a parade of division rivals, including 10 games in that span against the Yankees and home-and-home series with the Orioles and the Rays.
The hurdle ahead: They didn't catch much of a break with their early interleague play -- in May, they'll have a two-game set against the Giants, then a four-game set against the Atlanta Braves.
Games against teams with records .500 or better: 25 of their first 40.
Home/Road: 21 of their first 40 will be in Target Field.
Schedule notes: The scheduling gods threw a mint the Twins' way early in their season - their first interleague games, in mid-April, are a three-game home set against the Mets -- but outside of that, it'll be tough sledding.
The hurdle ahead: The Twins will need the All-Star break when they hit it. Thirteen of their 19 games against Detroit will be played in the first half, and the first two weeks in July will be an AL East extravaganza for the Twins, with 14 games against the Rays, Jays and Yankees.
7. Cleveland IndiansGames against teams with records of .500 or better: 24 of their first 40.
Home/Road: 19 of their first 40 games will be at home.
Schedule notes: Nineteen of Cleveland's first 22 games are against teams outside of the division, mostly against the AL East.
The hurdle ahead: The Indians don't play their first game against Detroit until May 21 - and after that series, Terry Francona goes back to Boston for the first time, for four games against the Red Sox.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last season: 22 of their first 42.
Home/Road: 20 of their first 42 will be at home.
Schedule notes: Ten of their first 16 games are against the Astros and Mariners, but it gets tougher after that. The Athletics don't play their first series against the Rangers until May 13.
The hurdle ahead: Just before the All-Star break, the Athletics might get a soft spot to build on for the second half -- consecutive series versus the Cubs, Royals, Pirates and Red Sox. It looks good on paper now, but we'll see.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last year: 20 of their first 40.
Home/Road: 15 of their first 40 will be in Camden Yards.
Schedule notes: In the past, some teams have had a lot of off-days in April, but not the Orioles. They'll play their first game on April 2, and from that point, they'll have just two days off before May 6 -- 32 games in 34 days.
The hurdle ahead: Nine of their first 45 games are against the Rays, and in fact, they'll have played 24 of their 38 2013 games against Tampa Bay and the Yankees by the All-Star break.
10. Tampa Bay Rays
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last year: 19 of their first 39.
Home/Road: 19 of their first 39 will be at home.
Schedule notes: They'll be tested right out of the gate because almost every team they will see in the first month is regarded as a contender.
The hurdle ahead: Just before the All-Star break, the Rays will have two weeks of opportunity -- seven games in a home-and-home series against Houston, along with a series against the Twins and White Sox. It'll be their time to gain ground before midseason.
11. Texas Rangers
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last season: 17 of their first 40.
Home/Road: 15 of their first 40 games will be at home.
Schedule notes: The Rangers will live on the road for much of the first month of the season. But that will include a season-opening road series in Houston, back-to-back series in Seattle and Wrigley Field, and a late-April series in Minnesota. So, there could be worse things.
The hurdle ahead: It won't be until mid-June that the Rangers will start to get their share of the AL East teams such as the Jays, Yankees and Orioles, and that's about the time they will have interleague series against the Reds and Cardinals.
12. Boston Red Sox
Games against teams with records of .500 or better last year: 19 of their first 42 games.
Home/Road: 24 of their first 42 will be at home.
Schedule notes: At the end of April, they have four home games against the Astros, and not long after that, they'll have another four-game set at home, against Minnesota. They'll want to feast in that time.
The hurdle ahead: Boston opens the season on the road at Yankee Stadium, then plays another road series in New York at the end of May -- but remarkably, the first time that the Red Sox will host the Yankees at Fenway will be July 19. The first half ends with a 10-game road trip.
13. New York Yankees
Games against teams with records .500 or better last year: 15 of their first 41 games.
Home/Road: 22 of their first 41 will be at home.
Early schedule notes: They have a tough 10-game stretch in which they'll be tested by divisional foes from April 19-28 - seven games against the Blue Jays and three against the Rays. But they could have a soft part of their schedule from April 29 to May 16; in that time, they'll play the Astros, Rockies, Royals and Mariners.
The hurdle ahead: The Yankees need to take advantage of that soft spot because it's going to get rough about June 11 because they will face, in order: the A's, Angels, Dodgers, Rays, Rangers and Orioles. This is their first-half meat grinder.
14. Detroit Tigers
Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 14 of their first 39.
Home/Road: 21 of their first 39 will be in Detroit.
Schedule notes: From their season-opening games against the Twins to the fact that they have a home and a road series against the Astros in the first quarter of the season, Detroit would seem to have a nice chance to get out of the gate quickly this year.
The hurdle ahead: The Tigers do see a lot of AL East teams early, but they don't play the Indians for the first time until May 21 and don't see the White Sox until July 9 -- and they play Chicago only three times in the first half. But the White Sox and Tigers will play 16 times in the second half.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better in 2012: 13 of their first 40.
Home/Road: 19 of their first 40 will be at home.
Schedule notes: There are doubts about whether the White Sox can repeat their 2012 success in 2013, but their early-season schedule will at least give them a shot to start well, depending on how they fare against the Indians and Jays. Neither of those teams finished over .500 last year, but both went through major offseason upgrades, and the White Sox will face them 10 times before April 25.
The hurdle ahead: The White Sox get an early taste of interleague play and get stuck with the Nationals -- but in May and June, they'll get the Mets, Marlins and Cubs.
I'll hit the National League on Sunday.
• The Mets have pushed back Johan Santana. The bottom line: He probably has only so many bullets to throw in a given season, and in this way, the Mets might have a better chance of having more during the season. Santana worked incredibly hard in his throwing program leading up to the 2012 season and completely faded at the end. Perhaps if he starts later, he can finish later. Or that's what they have to hope.
Brandon Webb could never regain the arm speed he lost; Santana will be trying to get his back.
• San Jose is hanging on to the dream of getting a new ballpark, writes John Woolfolk. The committee formed to study this issue is probably working on its second inaugural address.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Angels have switched to dynamic ticket pricing.
2. The White Sox added a left-handed-hitting third baseman.
3. Aaron Crow's future seems settled, writes Bob Dutton.
Dings and dents
1. David Ortiz is making strides, as Peter Abraham writes.
The fight for jobs
1. The Cubs might be looking at Plan C at third base.
2. There is a favorite for the Rangers' center-field job, as Evan Grant says.
2. The Indians' outfielders had some issues.
3. Rick Porcello was impressive.
4. Victor Martinez was back.
5. The Padres' Jedd Gyorko made an immediate impact.
• The Red Sox have a knuckleballer in their camp.
• John Lackey is excited to take the mound.
• Nate McLouth is ready to go.
• The Yankees have a one-tool player in their camp.
• Wil Myers will make his Rays debut today.
• An Astros prospect vows to learn from his mistakes, writes Brian Smith.
• The Athletics are looking forward to seeing Hiro Nakajima play.
• A Mariners pitcher survived a life-threatening brain issue.
• Davey Johnson is entering one final glory year, writes Thomas Boswell.
• The Braves are remade, as Mark Bradley writes.
• A new Marlin has impressed with his defensive skills.
• The Diamondbacks have questions that need to be answered, writes Nick Piecoro.
• A young Colorado prospect had a starring role Friday.
• Hamilton's situation is complex, Nolan Ryan told reporters.
• The Twins have a hard-throwing DJ, writes Tom Powers.
• Bobby Valentine is taking a job as athletic director.
• The Mariners' new radio voice found his situation to be somewhat surreal, writes Larry Stone.
• The Orioles plan to honor Earl Weaver with a sleeve patch.
• Steve Garvey is recovering from cancer surgery.
• Here's the story behind Michael Cuddyer's impeccable autograph, from Troy Renck. Pretty cool.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney says the Kansas City Royals have the toughest schedule in the American League.