- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The phrase inevitably comes up every year around this time, in clubhouses across the major leagues. Some manager or some player on a team that has gotten off to a rough start will be asked whether there’s already cause for concern. And the answer almost always will be the same.

“No, it’s still early.”

It’s a tried-and-true axiom of baseball: You can’t judge a club after only one month. No one’s ever won or lost the pennant in April.

At least, that’s what they would all like you to believe.

Truth be told, with only a handful of exceptions over the years, a team’s April performance actually is quite indicative of how the rest of the season is going to play out. Teams that get off to good starts generally go on to finish strong. Teams that get off to bad starts generally never catch up before it’s too late.

For proof of that, look back only one year ago.

At the end of play on April 30, 2008, there were 14 big league clubs with winning records. By season’s end, 12 of those 14 clubs still had winning records. Only the Baltimore Orioles (16-12 in April, 52-81 after) and Oakland Athletics (17-12 in April, 58-74 after) managed to squander early success.

A similar trend held true on the flip side. At the end of April, 16 teams had losing records. By season’s end, 12 of those 16 still had losing records. The only exceptions? The New York Yankees (14-15 in April, 75-58 after), Toronto Blue Jays (11-17 in April, 75-59 after), Minnesota Twins 13-14 in April, 75-61 after) and Houston Astros (13-16 in April, 73-59 after).

And even though those four teams managed to right their course and finish strong, it should be noted that none recovered enough to make it to the postseason (excluding the Twins’ one-game playoff loss to the Chicago White Sox).

The point is: April does matter. It’s easy to look at the long schedule ahead and say there’s plenty of time to get things together, but it’s not so easy to pull that off.

So as the season’s first month draws to a close, which teams need to be concerned and which teams should feel encouraged about the way things are going?

Teams that should be worried: The Rays (7-12 entering Monday), Indians (7-12), Angels (7-11), Diamondbacks (7-11) and, of course, the Nationals (4-13). Each has some major issue that has led to the poor start. Tampa Bay isn’t hitting enough. Cleveland’s pitching has been horrible. Los Angeles’ rotation has been devastated by injuries and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart. Arizona has lost ace Brandon Webb for an extended time. And Washington… well, there isn’t enough space here to delve into everything.

Teams that should be encouraged: The Blue Jays (14-6), Cardinals (13-6), Mariners (12-7), Dodgers (13-6) and Pirates (11-7). Each has been getting exemplary performances from some facet that wasn’t expected entering the year. Toronto is hitting extremely well. St. Louis’ makeshift bullpen is thriving. Seattle is getting revitalized pitching from Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard. Los Angeles is getting offense from guys other than Manny Ramirez. And Pittsburgh has the majors’ lowest ERA.

Will all those trends continue through the long summer and into September? Will the Blue Jays, Mariners and Pirates finish with winning records while the Rays, Indians and Angels all finish under .500? Probably not.

But some of those will come true. And managers around the game perhaps will come to realize what they should have known all along: It’s never too early to draw conclusions.

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