Major League Baseball in North America is a long slog, spanning many months of the year. It begins in late March and with 162 games for each team to play, there’s no real reason to worry about how your team is doing for that first 4-5 weeks of the season. A slow start can be erased by a hot streak. By October, it will all even out.
One could even wait until June 1 to view the team standings for the first time, but that gets too close to the halfway point. A really bad team can be out of the playoff race by then. I like to look at the standings around late April or early May. There is still time for the hot starts to cool off and the disappointments to redeem themselves, yet more than a month of baseball gives us something to chew on and analyze.
Analysis? “Yuck.” Don’t worry; I’m not one of those sabermetrics people with a PhD from MIT who can forecast exactly how everything can play out on a computer without those games ever being played. I love good statistics, which tell many a useful tale. But to me, if you don’t play the games, no amount of stats can forecast the direction of a season.
When they actually play the games, anything can happen. For every prediction, there’s a team and an individual player overcoming them, athletes playing beyond their means, and teams becoming more than a sum of their parts. There’s clutch hitting, there are pitchers who come out of nowhere to become dominant relievers, and there are injuries that throw variables into those statistical forecasts. Some athletes and teams undershoot or blow right through their projections.
On any given day, any team can win. In any given year, there are a dozen teams that will never come out on top because they don’t have enough talent on their rosters (at best, those will finish in third or fourth place in a division of five teams). But all of the others have a chance to be champions.
By this point, about 25 games are in the books, which is around 15% of the season. It’s time to take a look at how the teams have been doing so far. I’ll go through them by division and focus on the biggest (happy) surprises and (not so happy) disappointments.
Most other sites start with the Yankees. Not here. We commence with the senior circuit, the league in which pitchers hit for themselves.
National League (NL) East
Let’s begin by noting that the top two teams (until the Pittsburgh Pirates recent winning streak) were the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. I don't see the Pirates keeping this up for long. The Miami Marlins, to no one’s surprise, occupy the cellar. The Atlanta Braves are a little over .500; it’s a young team that has future potential but lacks key pieces to compete now. Where the Phillies are over-performing, the division’s fifth team, the Washington Nationals, is underperforming so far.
Happy surprises: For the first few weeks of the season, the Mets were the media darlings for their hot start. We knew their pitching was potentially elite and could keep them in the playoff hunt throughout the season. Much depends on this team keeping more than half its roster off the disabled list, which seemed to be where many of its players landed last year. Experts liked their recent additions, but it should be noted that Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Adrian Gonzalez are not exactly spring chickens. Gonzalez does not plug the hole at first base and may not survive the summer with this team unless he can tap the fountain of youth for a few more months. Michael Conforto is a key player; we may find out this year if he is merely good or a potential star. So I will say that I’ve been a bit surprised at how good the Mets have been, but (unlike some pundits), I question whether they will still be riding high in October.
The Phillies are very good. And that is a surprise to some, including me. Most experts have looked at their young prospects and seen a bright future for this team, but the surprise is for the Phils team to play like a contender so early. It seemed like they were a couple of years away. The team itself evidently believed in itself, choosing to hit the free agent market to bring in top additions, Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta. While Arrieta’s value dropped into reasonable territory by the end of a lackluster offseason on the hot stove, the Phillies’ personal people should be congratulated for spotting the potential of this team and doing what it needed to do to add veteran leadership with that kind of talent. Can the Phillies keep up their winning ways? Manager Gabe Kapler will do his best to screw it up, but they may be better than we thought.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler. Source: Philadelphia Magazine.
Disappointment: Washington Nationals. For the last several years, this team has often been picked as a World Series favorite. It hasn’t happened, perhaps because this team never seems to quite have ‘it’; the Nats are never more than a sum of their squabbling parts. The most important part, Bryce Harper, will probably leave once his contract is up, so the Nationals’ window to win is closing. And with their talent, I would expect them to turn things around this year by the All Star break or well before. This is the year they go “all in,” so it’s quite likely that if they are close at the halfway point, they will make one or more big trades not only to stay in it, but to get some elusive playoff wins.
It’s no surprise that the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are at the top of this division. Both were picked to do very well this year, and so far, are delivering. Similarly, it’s no surprise that the Cincinnati Reds are the doormat; they already fired their manager and are making opposing pitchers look like Cy Young. The Pittsburgh Pirates are somewhere in the middle of the pack, which is perhaps a bit better than their projections by the end of the season. As for surprises…
Bernie Brewer has been busy. Creative Commons via Wikipedia.com by Spacluch1.
Happy Surprises: None. There is only one real surprise so far in this division. And it’s not on the happy side of the ledger.
*Disappointment: You knew it was coming. The Chicago Cubs got off to a slow start, though they’re already showing signs of improvement. Yu Darvish followed up his World Series woes with a tough start to his season, his first in Chitown, and made people wonder what happened to Arrieta. One would expect Darvish to get back on track soon to the automatic ace he was before. Javier Baez is not just good; he’s quickly becoming a franchise player. Kyle Schwarber keeps hitting bombs. Even with Jason Heyward’s dead weight, this team has so many good players, so much young talent, and so much depth. They can score so many runs that their pitching does not need to be elite. Prediction: early disappointments will soon be a forgotten memory as the team regains its form.
San Diego is as bad as advertised. So far, the Arizona Diamondbacks have been better than most expected. The Colorado Rockies invested in bullpen depth during the offseason and it remains to be seen whether that is enough to help them materially; so far, they are looking good. The other teams in this division are puttering along. The Los Angeles Dodgers should be doing a little better (which they probably will soon enough...where's Justin Turner?) and the San Francisco Giants are holding up fairly well, considering the injury woes of their top three starting pitchers, and now face some setbacks to hot bats Joe Panik and Mac Williamson (by the way, Pablo Sandoval can pitch). Bear in mind that the early schedule this season has been very imbalanced in terms of the opponents each team has faced, and that's been quite impactful in this division.
Jarrod Dyson was a heck of a pickup for Arizona. Source: Arizona Diamondbacks.
Happy surprises: Arizona was picked by most experts to do well. Few expected it to dominate. Paul Goldschmidt is as good a slugger as there is in the game. A.J. Pollock is the real thing. Jarrod Dyson looks like the perfect ‘missing piece’ addition to this roster so far, but when I look around the diamond, I’m still not quite convinced this team won’t regress to the mean (I don’t know what that means, but it makes me sound smart). Zack Greinke seems to have lost something and may never return to being the elite pitcher he was a couple of seasons ago. They may not need him to be great, but it remains to be seen how far this rotation and bullpen can take the D-Backs. If you can say “Brad Boxberger” ten times without laughing, then you may be on to something.
And now on to the American League…
American League (AL) East
Move along. Nothing to see here, unless you like the epic perennial battle of this division’s two titans, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. There’s nothing to see unless you like watching all the home runs these Yanks will hit with several of the game’s top sluggers (including probably the game’s two most hyped sluggers in Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge…don’t sleep on Gary Sanchez, either). There’s nothing to see unless you like to watch J.D. Martinez bringing the fireworks in Fenway and Mookie Betts developing into a star (one of several very promising young hitters in Boston). Meanwhile, in other news, the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays also play in this division.
Mookie Betts. Creative Commons via Wikipedia.com by Arturo Pardavila III.
Happy Surprises: None, really. Even 10 days ago, one could have said that Boston’s hot start was a bit more than expected, but the Yankees are catching up. Stat projectors have forecasted these two teams to finish within a game or two of each other in the final standings and few people doubt that both will be there when Miss Congeniality picks up a wild card berth to put two of America’s favorite teams in the playoffs.
Disappointments: The other three teams. Toronto is never quite good enough and lost some pieces in the offseason it did not adequately replace. Tulo can't stay healthy. These teams all had their chances during a couple of down years while the big boppers were reloading. That window has passed now, so the ‘others’ are back to being punching bags and competing for a chance at a Wild Card berth. Do the Orioles ever develop their prospects? The O's have proven nothing in the last couple of decades except that they have one of the worst owners and some of the most questionable player development people in professional sports, while the Rays continue to field a minor league team.
American League (AL) Central
So far, only one team in this division has a winning record and it’s the Cleveland Indians. Jobu must be getting his rum. We knew Cleveland would be good, as they went deep into the playoffs last year. I thought they might miss Carlos Santana, but not so far. Oye como va. The Minnesota Twins have underperformed and the Kansas City Royals could still be a late blooming surprise after unexpectedly being able to sign back some of their free agents. The other teams aren’t very good, and the White Sox are finally rebuilding, so I don’t count their struggles as too surprising.
Jobu. From the movie Major League by Paramount Pictures.
Happy surprises: The Detroit Tigers, but it won’t last. Aside from a couple of aging stars, they don’t have the talent to keep this up, do they?
Disappointments: The Twinkies are not doing well so far. When I look at the roster, I don’t see a great team, but the Minnesota ownership evidently thought differently because it made noises about paying top free agents during the offseason. In the end, their only major addition was Jake Odorizzi, who came via trade, as even a buyer’s market didn’t enable them to land a Darvish or Arietta. To be fair, they’ve had some pitching injuries so far, but this team still does not look ready to contend. They could surprise by the end; it’s happened with the Twins before.
American League (AL) West
This is one of the most interesting divisions in baseball this year. The Anaheim Angels (sorry, guys, it’s faster to write the name that way) may be the top team here so far. They are very good and could come away with a wild card slot, if not the division crown. And then there’s those Houston Astros, the World Champion Houston Astros. Take one of the most deeply talented teams in the majors and add a full season of Justin Verlander – yikes. The next question is whether any of the others have the power to put together a run against the Astros or Angels. The next best candidate may be the Oakland Athletics, flush with young players named Matt, which has one of the best teams I’ve seen there in a long time. The Texas Rangers may need a rebuild if they can’t keep it close, while Seattle usually ends up somewhere in the middle, but (like Oakland) could be a few games better than people think.
Happy surprises: The Angels are looking great. It was a good team last year and it’s gotten better. I will eat crow and admit that so far, Shohei Ohtani has been every bit the two-way player we heard about from Japan. The dude can pitch and until now, he also can hit major league pitching (which I publicly questioned at the beginning of the season). I think it’s great and I hope he can keep it up through the second and third times he faces some of these teams; once there is a detailed scouting report on a new player, teams sometimes find a way to get him out. Ohtani will soon reach that point where they’ve adjusted to him, so he needs to adjust to their adjustments. I hope he can do so. If he and the rest of the Halos keep clicking, this could be their year.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia might have another winner on his hands, after a long wait. Creative Commons via Flickr.com by Keith Allison.
Disappointments: Maybe Texas, but it didn’t seem like they’d be very good. This team’s window to win included some deep runs and those two heartbreaking World Series losses a few years ago. They added some pieces thereafter, but have subtracted more recently. It’s hard to know whether ownership has embraced a full rebuild or believes it can retool. They probably need the rebuild at this point. Just look at that other city in Texas that tanked for four years and drafted well before turning it all into a championship last year and a contender for many more. The full hog rebuild model can deliver.
Top photo: San Francisco Giants' third baseman Pablo Sandoval pitching a 1-2-3 inning in a blowout game. Source: AP.