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Don't start believin'

4/19/2011
It's been all smiles for Cleveland thus far, but the schedule was built for it. Getty Images

On April 19, 2009, the Florida Marlins had the best record in baseball at 11-1. The Blue Jays had the best record in the American League at 10-4. The Padres were second in the NL West at 9-4, and the Royals were in a three-way tie for first place at 7-5. None of those teams made the playoffs or came close to keeping up their opening paces. The Marlins barely played .500 ball the rest of the way, while none of the other three clubs would win even 45 percent of their remaining games.

Most years don't turn themselves upside down to that degree, but it sticks out in my mind because I appeared on ESPN Radio late that month (while I was scouting a New Jersey high school player named Mike Trout) and answered questions about whether any of those "hot start" teams could keep it up. The answer, most of the time, was and is "No."

The flavor of the week right now is Cleveland, fresh off a sweep of last week's flavor, Baltimore. I had Cleveland finishing in fourth this year at 67-95, and I still think the Indians are a lot closer to that than they are to a 90-win season.

One reason is obvious -- the schedule, which can dramatically skew team records and even player stats in tiny samples. Among Cleveland's 11 wins are three-game sweeps of two of the league's worst teams, Seattle and Baltimore. The Indians lost series to preseason divisional favorites Chicago and the Angels, two games to one in each, but also mixed in a sweep of the Red Sox, who were widely picked (including by me) to win the World Series this year thanks to a strong run-prevention scheme and solid offense. The Red Sox pitched well in that series, but Cleveland limited Boston to five runs in three games.

I think you can make a case that Cleveland's offense, currently third in the AL in runs scored, will remain above-average over the long haul. The Indians' two best hitters, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana, were both sporting sub-.300 OBPs after Sunday's game, so as Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera (slugging .541!) come back to earth, Choo and Santana can pick up the slack, as could Grady Sizemore if he can stay on the field. Cleveland is also expected to call up top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall in June, once the potential for "super-two" arbitration status is diminished, using him in place of the unproductive Jack Hannahan at third base.

Where I doubt Cleveland most is on the run-prevention side of the ledger. The two fluky starts by Mitch Talbot weren't signs of things to come anyway, and now his injury exposes Cleveland's lack of pitching depth in the upper levels. Josh Tomlin's 2.75 ERA and three wins mask fringy stuff, including a below-average fastball and no real out pitch to miss bats; he's likely to be homer-prone in addition to just generally hit-prone. Carlos Carrasco at least has two above-average pitches in his fastball and changeup, but he has never really had an average breaking ball and his command remains a stubborn problem. Even erstwhile ace Justin Masterson has weaknesses, including a career-long platoon split borne of his low arm slot, and while I expect him to dominate right-handed hitters I doubt he'll sustain his current .103/.212/.103 line against them.

The bullpen is headed for a similar regression. Closer Chris Perez has had career-long control issues, but in this year's tiny sample he hasn't missed bats. Rafael Perez hasn't been the same since he was worked hard in the 2007 postseason, and rookie reliever Vinnie Pestano will eventually have to throw something other than a fastball. One or two of these guys may surprise us, but through Sunday's games Cleveland has the lowest opponents' OPS in the league (and the fourth-best ERA), and that's not going to continue, especially not with a below-average defense that would benefit from having Michael Brantley in center and Sizemore in left.

I don't mean to pick on Cleveland specifically; I don't think the Royals are going to finish over .500, nor do I expect the Nationals to do the same. I doubt Boston or Atlanta finishes under .500 or that Minnesota ends up in last place.

I've said it once before about the start of the season, but it bears repeating: We notice these "streaks" only because nothing preceded them, so the standings reflect the hot/cold starts and nothing else. Just about every good team will have a bad stretch, and just about every bad team will have a strong week or two. But it would be a shock to see any of these upside-down starts persist for the entire year.