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First-quarter observations from the MLB season

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Updated: 5/21/2013 12:24 pm

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A little over 25 percent of the Major League Baseball season is already in the books.

Several teams have established themselves as unexpected contenders. Numerous players have exceeded personal expectations, and numerous others have underperformed.

Let's take a look at some of the league's first-quarter trends:

THE DEMISE OF THE YANKEES AND RED SOX WAS GREATLY EXAGGERATED

Boston was coming off a miserable and tumultuous 69-93 season. New York entered this year with injuries to stars Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson.

It looked like a changing of the guard was going to happen in the American League East. After all, Tampa Bay has been a contender for the past half-dozen years and Baltimore made a playoff appearance in 2012. Toronto engineered a number of major acquisitions that made a worst-to-first charge look quite possible.

Yet, a glance at the standings shows that things are back to normal, with the Yankees and Red Sox setting the AL East pace. As New York gets healthier, it could establish itself as the favorite again. If Boston can solidify an injury- riddled bullpen, it could prove to be the Yankees' chief divisional threat.

It's going to be a tough race all season, because Tampa Bay and Baltimore are solid teams, too. Still, don't be surprised if New York and Boston once again duke it out in late September.

THE NATIONALS HAVE A CY YOUNG CONTENDER NOT NAMED STRASBURG OR GONZALEZ

Remember last year, when Washington shut down ace Stephen Strasburg in September? The thought was that with a full season and no limitations, Strasburg would be a top National League Cy Young candidate in 2013.

Then there was Gio Gonzalez, who finished third in last year's NL Cy Young voting. Between those two pitchers, the Nationals figured to have a top contender for this year's award.

They do, but it's actually Jordan Zimmermann. He's 7-2 with a 1.64 ERA.

As for those other two Washington pitchers, things haven't gone as well as expected. Strasburg is just 2-5 despite a fine 2.83 ERA. Gonzalez is 3-2, but his ERA is just 4.01.

IT'S BEEN A ROUGH YEAR IN LOS ANGELES (AND ANAHEIM)

More than a few people came into this season with visions of an all-Los Angeles World Series. The Angels added Josh Hamilton to an already star-studded lineup. The Dodgers put together a roster that had the highest payroll in the sport, adding former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to an already deep pitching staff.

A quarter a way through the season, the all-L.A. World Series is merely a pipe- dream. The Dodgers have struggled mightily at times, in large part because of multiple pitching injuries, as well as a pair of injuries that have limited star shortstop Hanley Ramirez to just four games.

As for the Angels, Hamilton and fellow slugger Albert Pujols have been slow coming out of the gate. The bigger problem has been a struggling pitching staff that has featured offseason acquisition Joe Blanton, who has an unsightly 0-7 record and 6.62 ERA.

It's possible the biggest competition between the Dodgers and Angels this year will be the race to see which manager - the Dodgers' Don Mattingly or the Angels' Mike Scioscia - gets his walking papers first.

THE CARDINALS JUST KNOW HOW TO WIN

Let's see. The Cardinals lost pitching ace Chris Carpenter, starting shortstop Rafael Furcal and closer Jason Motte to injury before the season began.

The initial replacement for Motte, Mitchell Boggs, struggled so badly when thrust into the closer role that he was sent to the minor leagues.

Even before those key preseason injuries occurred, the Cardinals realistically lagged behind the Cincinnati Reds on paper in the NL Central pecking order. Nevertheless, look who's leading the division.

The Cardinals have had winning records in 12 of the past 13 years, capturing the division six times, qualifying for the postseason nine times and winning the World Series twice during that span.

Basically, the Cardinals are almost always good. It's because someone usually steps up whenever there's adversity.

Shelby Miller, who earned a spot in the rotation when Carpenter was lost, is 5-3 with a 1.74 ERA. Pete Kozma, the replacement for Furcal at shortstop, has batted a respectable .264 and, more importantly, committed just one error in 185 total chances.

As for the closer role, Edward Mujica, who had four total saves in seven major- league seasons prior to this year, is 13-for-13 in save opportunities, with 18 strikeouts, one walk and a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings pitched. It's as if putting on the Cardinals uniform has turned him into Superman.

Such a development should be a surprise, but this is the Cardinals, and they just always manage to find a winning formula.

DON'T SLEEP ON ARIZONA IN THE NL WEST

The San Francisco Giants are the defending World Series champions, so they have to be considered the favorites to win the NL West title. There wasn't any preseason hype surrounding the Arizona Diamondbacks, but it would be unwise to dismiss them from the division title chase.

Yes, Arizona finished just 81-81 and in third place last season, but the Diamondbacks won the NL West as recently as 2011. This version is arguably better than that team, thanks mostly to the full-season presence of Paul Goldschmidt, who is establishing himself as an NL Most Valuable Player candidate.

If Arizona can straighten out its pitching - aside from Patrick Corbin (who is 7-0 already) - this could be an exceptional team. Brandon McCarthy, who was signed in the offseason as a free agent, is 1-3 with a 4.74 ERA. He's bound to improve. So, too, is Ian Kennedy, a former 21-game winner who has struggled to a 4.88 ERA.

An injury to closer J.J. Putz is going to make things more difficult, but the Diamondbacks should hang around awhile in this race. If Arizona's struggling starting pitchers come around before San Francisco's, the Diamondbacks could sneak in and steal this race.

HOME RUNS ARE IN ABUNDANCE - BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE

There's a chance that a record number of strikeouts will occur this year in Major League Baseball. Mostly, it's because hitters are often swinging for the fences.

Plenty of them are connecting. Yet, some hitters who figured to belt 30 home runs or so are experiencing noteworthy power outages.

For instance, the Dodgers' Matt Kemp has two home runs in 165 at-bats. The Cardinals' Allen Craig has two in 161 at-bats, the New York Mets' Ike Davis has four in 138 at-bats and the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman has three in 111 at-bats.

In the AL, the Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau has two homers in 161 at- bats. The Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury has one in 191 at-bats, and the Detroit Tigers' Torii Hunter has one in 171 at-bats.

What does it all mean? Probably nothing much, but it simply shows that hitters with power are prone to be streaky. Several of the seven hitters mentioned above will probably end up with 20-something home runs. They're just making their managers - and their fantasy owners - sweat a little bit.

WATCH OUT FOR CLEVELAND AND KANSAS CITY IN A WIDE-OPEN AL CENTRAL

Defending AL champion Detroit was the clear favorite to win the Central Division. The Tigers already had an impressive roster, but they added Hunter through free agency and welcomed the return of Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

Surprisingly, the AL Central has been, from top to bottom, the most competitive division in baseball. Detroit is in second place, 2 1/2 games out, but only seven games separate the five clubs. Last-place Minnesota is just seven games off the lead.

Detroit is still the odds-on favorite, but upstarts Cleveland and Kansas City, who won just 68 and 72 games last year, respectively, should not be taken lightly.

Pitching was the biggest question mark for the Indians, but they've been in the middle of the pack in league ERA. That's been good enough to be successful because the Indians have had no trouble scoring runs.

Kansas City's offseason acquisitions of James Shields and Ervin Santana have helped the team post one of the best team ERAs in the AL. The offense has yet to follow suit, but the potential is there.

ARE ALL THOSE POSTSEASON INNINGS CATCHING UP WITH THE GIANTS' PITCHERS?

Giants starting pitchers Matt Cain (3-2, 5.43 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (2-4, 7.19) have struggled quite a bit in the early going, and now Vogelsong is sidelined six weeks with a fractured right hand.

Even though their teammate, Tim Lincecum (3-3, 4.70), has been better than he was last year, he's still a shell of the guy who won a pair of NL Cy Young Awards early in his career.

Those pitchers wouldn't trade in their 2010 and 2012 World Series championships for anything, but one has to wonder whether their heavy workloads built up through long postseason runs have had a negative effect.

In 2010, Cain pitched 223 1/3 regular-season innings, then 21 1/3 more during the postseason. Last year, he tossed 219 1/3 regular-season innings, then 30 more during the postseason.

Vogelsong wasn't on the 2010 Giants, but he threw a career-high 189 2/3 regular-season innings in 2012, then 24 2/3 more in the postseason.

Last regular season, Lincecum was 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA. His postseason workload wasn't that big because he pitched primarily out of the bullpen. Maybe the decrease in innings has helped him this year.

In 2010, for instance, Lincecum threw 212 1/3 regular-season innings, then a whopping 37 more in the postseason. It could easily have taken its toll, especially on a pitcher with such a slight build.

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