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Greinke's progression highlights MLB's surprising first month

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If there was any lingering doubt about who or what the story was in Major League Baseball through the first month of the 2009 season, Kansas City Royals right-hander Zack Greinke answered that question in a resounding way on Monday with yet another brilliant performance.

Greinke improved to a perfect 6-0 in six starts by making the White Sox the victims of his second shutout of the season, lowering his earned run average to a mesmerizing 0.40 in the process.

In 45 innings this season Greinke has allowed just two earned runs, both of which came in the same start.

The progression of Greinke has been fascinating to watch.

Heralded as the Royals' best pitching prospect since Bret Saberhagen when he came upon the scene in 2004, Greinke struggled not only on the field, but off of it, as he missed most of the 2006 campaign with a social anxiety disorder.

Armed with all the potential in the world, the Royals treated Greinke with kid gloves -- and rightfully so -- from that point on, slowly bringing him along, even letting him pitch out of the bullpen in 2007 to get him right, both mentally and physically.

However, he made 32 starts last year and his finish last season served as a sign of things to come. After picking up wins in four of his final five starts, the Royals showed even more faith in their ace, locking him up with a four-year, $38 million extension.

Now he is quite simply the best pitcher in baseball, and like Saberhagen before him, he has fans in Kansas City thinking about the postseason, and only a month into the season.

With Greinke leading the way, the Royals are surprisingly atop of what looks like a very winnable AL Central at the moment.

Of course, the Minnesota Twins played the whole month of April without catcher Joe Mauer and the Detroit Tigers have the firepower to win the division, but Cleveland and defending champion Chicago don't appear to be real contenders.

Greinke and the Royals, who have been among the standouts of the season's opening month, could be in this thing for the long haul.

Below are some more notables from the first 30 days of the league's season:

BEST PITCHER - (See Above)

BEST PLAYER - ALBERT PUJOLS

When the Alex Rodriguez steroid revelations reared their ugly heads this offseason, fans began to look to Albert Pujols as the next prospect to threaten Barry Bonds' record "the clean way". Pujols even stated in a Sports Illustrated article that it was OK to believe in him. Hopefully he is telling the truth, because he is off to a scintillating start this season, belting 10 homers with 30 RBI and 26 runs scored, while hitting .337 through 26 games for the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals. Plus he has only struck out nine times this season. Ten Homers and nine strikeouts, unbelievable. Pujols is hands-down the best player in the game.

SURPRISE TEAM - SEATTLE MARINERS

You can go a bunch of ways here. The Royals, Toronto and Seattle can all state solid cases, but I am going with the Mariners. I still don't believe in Toronto. Honestly, I don't now how the Jays keep winning with that patchwork starting staff. Aside from a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto has yet to play anyone in the American League East. That means no games yet against the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or Tampa Bay Rays. Beat those opponents, and maybe we will talk.

If Greinke can continue his dominance, Kansas City could very well be the team to win this award at the end of the season, but I already thought the Royals were going to be good coming into 2009.

So, I am going with the Mariners, the team who lost 101 games a year ago, but, as I write this, resides in first place in the American League West. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who were picked by just about everyone on the planet to win the division, have started to come on of late, but the injuries to their starting staff still concern me.

BIGGEST TEAM DISAPOINTMENT - TAMPA BAY RAYS

While there may be some debate on which team has been the biggest surprise this season, there is no doubt which team has been the biggest disappointment. After 97 wins, an AL East title and a trip to the World Series a year ago, big things were expected from the Rays. While Evan Longoria (.365, 8 HR, 34 RBI) has held up his end of the bargain, a good bunch of the Rays, most notably B.J. Upton, have been miserable. Upton is hitting .157, while catcher Dioner Navarro is batting a paltry .179. Their strong staff has been nothing to write home about either, save for a few strong Matt Garza outings.

David Price anyone?

BIGGEST FREE AGENT BUST - CC SABATHIA/MARK TEIXEIRA (tie)

Sure it is probably way to early to judge this sort of thing, but that is what we do, especially when the New York Yankees shelled out $341 million for these two players this offseason. Sabathia, a notoriously slow starter, has gotten his 2009 season off on the wrong foot by going 1-3 with a 4.85 ERA, while Teixeira has failed miserably in trying to fill the void in the lineup left by the injured Alex Rodriguez. Despite playing a terrific first base while claiming to have a sore wrist, Teixeira has hit just .198 with five home runs, 12 RBI and has failed numerous times in big spots for the Yankees.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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