All schedules are not equal early in the season

Angels, Mariners, Braves, Nats and Phils face tough tests in April and May

All schedules are not equal early in the season
The age-old adage says that division crowns aren't won or lost in April. While that may be true, the fact remains that games played in the first two months of the season ultimately carry the same weight as those played in September.

Just ask any member of the 2012 Angels.

The Halos, despite high expectations, stumbled out of the gate last year and finished the opening month nine games out of first place in the American League West with an 8-15 record. They bounced back -- in part because of the arrival of Mike Trout -- and went 81-58 the rest of the way, but still finished third in the ultra-competitive AL West and missed the postseason.

With even greater expectations this season due to the addition of slugger Josh Hamilton, the Angels will look to avoid a similar crippling start -- but it won't be easy, given their opening schedule.

While schedules even out over the course of a full season, some teams -- on paper, at least -- appear destined for fast starts, while others will need to navigate some rough terrain in the early months.

In the AL, the Angels are one of three teams with a rather unfavorable early slate. Mike Scioscia's club will open the season with three consecutive series against playoff teams from a season ago, starting with back-to-back road series against the Reds and Rangers before returning home to host the Athletics. They also play the Tigers and have another series each against Texas and Oakland before the month ends.

A large part of the Angels' difficult road comes from the strength of their division, something the Mariners will find out early on as well. Seattle is looking to continue improving under manager Eric Wedge, who has led the club to an average of seven more wins each season in his two years at the helm.

It could be a rough start for the Mariners, however, as they not only have to deal with the AL West powers, but also face a tough slate of non-division opponents out of the gate. Of the club's first 33 games, 24 are against the likes of the Rangers, A's, Angels, Tigers, Blue Jays and Orioles.

While the Mariners will look to make a Cinderella-like run, much like last year's Orioles, Baltimore will have its hands full in the opening two months. Along with playing the Rays nine times and the Blue Jays seven in the first two months, the O's have non-division contests against the A's (four games), Angels (four), Nationals (four) and Dodgers (three).

For some teams, stretches like that won't come until mid-summer, so April and May could be the prime months to rack up some wins. In the AL, the early schedule seems to have shaken out more favorably for the defending pennant-winning Tigers, as well as the White Sox and Rangers.

In the first two months, Detroit will play 17 games against teams that finished in last place of their respective divisions in 2012. The White Sox have an opportunity to keep pace with the defending division champs though, as they play just two series over the first two months against playoff teams from last year.

"It all balances out," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said. "The great thing about this game is at the end of the year, after 162 games, you have a really good idea of who the better team is in the division. So, it will all level out in the end and find out where we are at."

Similar to the White Sox, the Rangers' early schedule isn't exactly loaded with 2012 playoff teams. In fact, they don't play one until May 13, when Texas opens a three-game set in Oakland.

A couple National League teams are in a similar boat, as the defending World Series champion Giants face just one postseason team (St. Louis) in the season's opening month. And if the Cards can survive the Giants and a few other NL powers in April, they'll be set up nicely for the month of May, during which they don't face a postseason team from last year.

The Giants also have the benefit of playing as many home games (30) as any team in the NL -- tied with the Pirates -- over the season's first two months. Sitting right behind them with 29 home games is the Dodgers, a third NL team with a favorable early slate. Along with the home-heavy schedule, the Dodgers have eight off-days in April and May, the most of any NL team.

That early travel schedule will certainly be envied by the Braves, who have a Major League-most 31 combined road games in April and May. That, combined with a late April/early May stretch in which the Braves play 14 of 17 games against the Tigers, Nationals, Reds and Giants, leaves Atlanta with one of the most demanding early schedules.

Fortunately for the Braves, their two biggest competitors in the NL East -- Washington and Philadelphia -- are right behind them when it comes to starting the season with an uphill climb.

For the Nats, nine of their first 18 series are against teams that made the playoffs last season, while the other half include matchups with the White Sox, Dodgers, Pirates and Phillies.

Philadelphia won't have it much easier as it looks to rebound from last year's disappointing third-place finish. As the Phils continue to battle to stay healthy, they will play the third-fewest home games of any NL team in April and May, while also playing non-divisional series against the Reds (twice), Cards and Giants.

"I think if we're all healthy and out there and just playing the way we can, we can beat anyone," Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee said.

In the end, playing more home games is preferable, but certainly doesn't guarantee anything. And playing teams that weren't on the radar last season certainly doesn't mean they won't be better this season -- just like 2012 surprises the Orioles and Athletics.

"I certainly haven't looked at our schedule and tried to figure out who are contenders and who are non-contenders," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, whose club has a Major League-most nine off days in the first two months. "In Major League Baseball, if you think the team you're playing is a non-contender, you are going to get your tails whipped. It's not the best team who wins on a given day, it's the team that plays the best."

Paul Casella is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.