Also-rans spring to life

Maybe this will be the year Victor Zambrano wins 30 games. Maybe it will be the year when Brady Clark hits more homers than Barry Bonds. Maybe it will be the year when Bobby Higginson resembles the player he was supposed to be when he got the huge contract.

It's one week into the season, and fans in some of baseball's dreariest outposts have reasons to dream.

Some are valid, some are the stuff of pipe dreams. But either way, it is good to see Detroit, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Milwaukee clicking along with a combined winning percentage of .654.

It would make a great storyline if one of these four teams became the Kansas City Royals of 2004. But, of course, by this time next week all of them could be moving back toward the scrap heap.

Here's a look at three things about each team that just might give them some staying power:

1. They've got a pulse, and it comes from hitting.

A rebuilt lineup that features imported veterans Ivan Rodriguez, Fernando Vina, Rondell White and Carlos Guillen scored at least five runs combined in each of the first six games, averaging 6.8. That's quite the improvement over the first week in 2003, when Detroit scored all of six runs in six games, setting a tone for a season in which it averaged 3.6 per game.

While it is the newcomers who have set the tone, 25-year-old first baseman Carlos Pena is off to an encouraging start. Ditto outfielder Craig Monroe, who hit 23 home runs last year but essentially became a fourth outfielder after the signing of White.

Good thing GM Dave Dombrowski provided some depth. Monroe returned to the lineup after DH Dmitri Young, the Tigers' 2003 leader in home runs (29) and RBI (85), broke his right leg in the second game.

2. They're catching the ball.
Rodriguez, arguably the best defensive catcher in the history of the game, is a tremendous asset for a marginal pitching staff. One manager once estimated that Rodriguez saves his team one run a game, not just eliminating stolen bases but cutting down the leads that runners take off bases, and that could be right on the money.

Rodriguez threw out the first two runners who tried to steal against him, providing immediate help for pitchers who saw opponents steal 128 bases last year, the most in the AL. The Tigers allowed 81 unearned runs in their 119-loss season in 2003, the second-most in the league. When Oakland and Kansas City allowed unearned runs on Sunday, the Tigers became the only AL team that hasn't given up one this season.

3. Their starting pitchers don't have that "here we go again'' feeling.
Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Cornejo, who were a combined 21-57 last season, all have already won games.

1. They're healthy.

More than anything, former GM Jim Bowden constructed his team around a trio of outfielders. But Ken Griffey Jr., Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn missed a combined 235 games due to injury last season, with none driving in more than 58 runs.

Dunn and Griffey are off to fast starts, hitting a combined .333 (12-for-36) with six home runs, more than the Phillies (1), Giants (2), Expos (3), Braves (3), Padres (3) and Pirates (5).

2. Don Gullett has the pitching staff throwing strikes instead of consistently falling behind in the count.

This trend started in spring training and has carried over into the regular season, with Reds pitchers issuing only 10 walks in 54 innings.

Gullett also has a rebuilt starting rotation (Cory Lidle, Paul Wilson, Jose Acevedo, Jimmy Haynes and Aaron Harang) working fast. "The more time you are on the mound, the more you have to think and the more time you take to think the more confused you get,'' Gullett says. "The more time you are out there the more time you give the hitter to figure you out.''

Scouts said Wilson was outstanding in his start against the Cubs last Wednesday and Acevedo has been a winter-ball terror in the past. But the reality is the Reds' starters aren't headed for All-Star seasons. However, it helps a lot that Gullett has given them a direction.

3. Danny Graves is back in the right role.

It's never a good idea to let a guy's salary affect how you use him, but that's why Graves was moved into the starting rotation a year ago. The switch was a bonafide disaster, with the lone saving grace being that it allowed Chris Reitsma to build his market value (he was traded to Atlanta this spring for two potential starting pitchers, Jung Bong and Bubba Nelson). Graves is comfortable again as the closer.

1. Without Richie Sexson, a thin roster is deeper.

General manager Doug Melvin did a good job getting four regulars in exchange for Sexson, even if first baseman Lyle Overbay (8-for-33 with two homers so far) is the only one with potential staying power. Second baseman Junior Spivey, shortstop Craig Counsell and catcher Chad Moeller will buy time so that there's less of a temptation to rush an impressive group of prospects.

Milwaukee came out of Arizona scoring runs, using its 6.7 runs per game to take three of four in St. Louis and win one of three against Houston. They're second in the NL with 12 home runs. But the total isn't the impressive part. They've spread those 12 homers among 10 different players. That shows the depth Melvin added.

2. Dan Kolb has restored order to the bullpen.

Like Scott Podsednik last season, Kolb is a castoff who got away from the Texas Rangers. Injuries caused him to be a late bloomer, but Melvin was wise to give him another chance. He went 21-for-23 in save situations after taking over as Milwaukee's closer after Mike DeJean was traded last July and is off to a solid start. Don't be shocked if he threatens Bob Wickman's club record of 37 saves.

3. Geoff Jenkins, their best player, isn't going anywhere.

After trading Sexson, Melvin got returning All-Star Jenkins signed to a contract extension that runs through 2007, with an option for '08. It's a huge risk for the club, given that injuries have never allowed the 29-year-old outfielder to play more than 135 games in a season, but it sends a message, both inside the clubhouse and outside.

Devil Rays
1. Lou Piniella has some decent options in the bullpen.

The signing of Danys Baez was a huge move, but the best addition to the bullpen could be 21-year-old Chad Gaudin, who packs a ton of potential into his 5-foot-11 frame. He is headed toward an eventual spot in the Tampa Bay rotation, but for the moment is a member of a cast of relievers that includes 2003 All-Star Lance Carter and well-traveled lefty Trever Miller.

2. Tino Martinez is not done.

Given that St. Louis is paying $7 million of his $8.5 million salary, Martinez is one of the best bargains in the majors. He has added a tough, left-handed presence to a young lineup, showing how to work pitchers. He's on a mission to clear his name after being a fall guy for the Cardinals and is off to a good start, hitting .375 with two homers in his first six games. He's also scored five runs for a lineup that is averaging 5.3 runs per game. That's a solid start, especially considering that Aubrey Huff (.214 batting average) and Rocco Baldelli (.207) still appear jet-lagged from the trip to Japan.

3. Zambrano fronts a pitching staff that does a good job of inducing ground balls.

Fly-ball pitchers are an endangered species at Tropicana Field, and the 2004 staff figures to do a better job of keeping the ball in the park than the Rays' previous staffs. Julio Lugo, Rey Sanchez and Baldelli make Tampa Bay solid up the middle, which should count for something with this staff.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.