Buchan: Baseball's early returns hard to evaluate

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WALLA WALLA - The marathon is on.

And baseball fans from Bremerton to Boston couldn't be happier. Even those huddled under blankets or hidden beneath umbrellas in the stands of many big league ballparks around the country where spring stubbornly refuses to announce its arrival.

But it won't be long until rainy days and chilly nights give way to a long, hot summer. When pitching arms round into top form just as baseballs begin to fly farther and faster in the warm, dry air.

As of today the 2011 season is exactly two weeks old. Most teams have played between 10 and 12 games, and it's still too early to get an accurate read on teams or individual players.

The common rule of thumb is that it takes 40 games - it's called the quarter pole, one-fourth of the season - before you really know what you have. Or don't have, as the case may be.

So Mariners fans shouldn't be too distraught at their team's sluggish start. After winning their first two games in Oakland, the M's lost seven in a row to fall five games below the .500 mark, and there's a good chance they'll never make it back to break-even baseball.

Nevertheless, Seattle fans should take heart in the team's spunky rally Monday night in which the M's erased a 7-0 deficit and defeated hard-hitting Toronto 8-7 to snap that early slide. Then they beat the Jays again Tuesday behind the strong pitching of rookie right-hander Michael Penada.

Those are two real good signs of better days ahead in Seattle, even though they might not show up on the team's record this season.

(But the M's will need to address their lackluster offense and inconsistent bullpen that showed up again in Wednesday's 8-3 loss to Toronto.)

While two weeks of games is far from an accurate gauge, there's no denying there have been some surprises during the early going. None more so than Boston's 2-9 record following Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay at Fenway Park in Boston that left the Red Sox in last place in the American League East, five games behind first-place Baltimore.

Anyone who follows baseball knows that the Red Sox are the popular pick to unseat the Yankees in the division and challenge for another World Series championship after the off-season acquisitions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford via free agency.

During five previous seasons in San Diego, Gonzalez averaged 32 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs three times while compiling a .284 career batting average. Gonzalez is off to a so-so start in a Red Sox uniform, hitting .268 with one homer and seven RBIs.

Crawford, however, has been pathetic, hitting just .152 with a pair of stolen bases. During his nine-year career in Tampa Bay, Crawford compiled a .295 batting average, drove in 593 runs, scored 768 and stole a whopping 411 bases.

Their unimpressive numbers so far this season and Kevin Youklis' dismal start clearly explain why the Red Sox are where they are.

Youklis, the heart and soul of Boston's offensive lineup, is hitting .182 with a pair of RBIs and no homers. In his five full seasons in Boston, he has batted .293, socked 104 homers and drove in 438 runs.

While there is plenty of time to rectify matters, the big-spending Red Sox are learning what their hated rivals, the Yankees, have discovered over the years. It's not as easy to buy a team as it might appear, because what looks good on paper doesn't always work out on the field.

But the Red Sox aren't the only high profile team to break from the gate slowly.

The defending world champion Giants are 6-6 and three games in back of front-running Colorado in the National League West. The Twins and the Tigers, expected to compete for the American League Central title along with Chicago, are below .500 and struggling to score runs. Likewise the Cardinals, one of the favorites in the National League Central, are 5-7 and three games behind red-hot Cincinnati.

The Rockies, at 8-2, have the best record in the NL and lead both the Giants and the Dodgers by three games in the West. Philadelphia, to no one's surprise, is 8-3 and leads the Marlins by two games and the Nationals by three in the East. And the Reds are 8-4 and a game-and-a-half up on the Brewers in what is expected to be a hotly contested race in the Central.

It's also hardly surprising that the defending American League champion Rangers are off to a 9-3 start and lead the Angels by two games in the West. But Cleveland, 8-4, and Kansas City, 7-4, are the unexpected early leaders in the Central. The Yankees and surprising Baltimore are the co-leaders in the East, one game in front of Toronto.

Much of this may change, of course, assuming the cream will begin to rise to the top.

The same can be said for individual players around the big leagues.

In the American League, Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, who is a .292 career hitter, leads the way in batting average at .438, followed by the Royals' Wilson Betemit, a career .268 hitter, who is at .379.

In the NL, the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero and the Reds' Joey Votto share the lead at .444 while the Dodgers' Matt Kemp (.426) and the Padres' Nick Hundley (406). Montero is a career .272 hitter who had his best season in 2009 when he hit .294 in 425 at-bats. Votto, the reigning NL Most Valuable Player, is coming off a season in which he hit .324 with 37 home runs and 113 runs batted in, and he owns a career .318 average.

On the flip side, Angels first-year acquisition Vernon Wells was hitting .102, the Yankees' Mark Teixeira was at .222 and three-time batting champion Joe Mauer of the Twins was hitting .235. In the NL, the Braves' Dan Uggla at .152, the Dodgers' James Loney at .159 and the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez at .194 were all big underachievers along with perhaps the most notable of all, the Cardinals' Albert Pujols, who was hitting .229 to begin his contract year.

But now is not the time to panic. It's way too early for that, right?

Now is the time to remember that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

Or, as one baseball sage once said, "There comes a time when you have to trust the backs of their baseball cards."

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