By: Tom McCabe
What a time to be alive. We’re currently waist deep in the NHL playoffs, where an expansion team has become the betting favourite. Seriously, name one other league where it’s plausible that a team assembled from the back end of every other roster could become the favourite to win the ‘ship in their first season? Speaking of other leagues, the NBA playoffs are also heating up. Lebron is tired, the Thunder couldn’t force game 7 against Joe Ingles and super-rookie Donovan Mitchell and sure fire hall of fame inductee J.J Redick is leading the process in scoring. Plus, we’re just over a month away from Johnny Football’s CFL debut. Ahhh yes, I love the smell of spring.
But best of all, baseball is BACK. We are officially through one month, which is great for a few reasons. There is a plethora (word of the day) of games on daily to watch and sample sizes are still small. Meaning you can be justifiably optimistic if you’re a Braves fan, who are currently 4.5 games up on the Nationals and have the second best team batting average in the entire league. On the contrary, it’s only been a month, which is what Dodger fans are using for ammo when shooting down the fact Clayton Kershaw is 1-4 and that their team is 7 games back in the division.
So while it has only been a month and less than 20% of all games have been played, some noteworthy storylines are developing that surely will be fun to follow throughout the year. Here’s a look at some surprising and not so surprising storylines in each division to keep an eye on as we inch toward the dog days of summer.
AL East: Frig the Red Sox are good
In an MLB offseason that was fairly sluggish, the biggest buzz in the AL east was the Yankees acquisition of reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton. Pairing one refrigerator sized man with a slightly larger refrigerator sized man instantly turned an already potent offence into an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers. The buzz from this deal somewhat overshadowed the Red Sox grabbing JD Martinez from the D-Backs, arguably the most coveted free agent slugger of the winter. Martinez has given the Sox a much needed power boost in their lineup and the hefty price tag ($110 million over 5 years) has seemingly been worth it so far, with Martinez hitting .337 with a .958 OPS through April.
Aside from Martinez, the Red Sox lineup has been terrific. They currently have the best record in all of baseball (21-7 as of writing), while also leading the league in team batting average (.273). Mookie Betts has posted some video game numbers at the plate, leading the American League in OPS and runs, while also continuing to shine in the field. Rick Porcello has looked terrific and Chris Sale hasn’t cut up any jerseys yet. Old man Hanley Ramirez is one of five players in the Sox lineup hitting over .330. Rookie manager Alex Cora has to be happy with his clubs performance so far, considering infield staple Dustin Pedroia has yet to play and the fact that David Price has almost pitched half as many innings as he did last season in one month. With Xander Bogaerts back from the 10-day DL, this Sox lineup is hoping to stay healthy in order to gain some ground on the red hot Yankees, who are 9-1 in their last 10. While the hype around the Yankees was understandable, the Red Sox have stole the show early in the season. The two teams have already fought (literally) and will continue to battle for the division crown in a fairly top heavy AL east as the season progresses.
AL Central: Are any of these teams good?
No disrespect AL Central, but you are shaping up to be the worst division in baseball. Four of five teams in the AL Central are below .500, with the division leading Indians currently sitting at 15-12 and nearly half of those wins coming against their very poor divisional opponents. This would be a great scenario to use the “it’s been one month, let’s let them breathe” argument, but I’m just going to go ahead and be objective and say this division stinks.
On paper, sure the Indians are a great team and I have little doubt they’ll be contending for the American League pennant by seasons end, but their bats have been quiet so far. After being second in the AL last season in team batting average, the Tribe currently find themselves second last in the American League in team batting average (.227), barely ahead of the lowly Baltimore Orioles (.224). The bright spot has been their pitching, with Corey Kluber leading the way with a 4-1 record and a 0.77 WHIP (that is very good). Mike Clevinger, in his third season with the Indians has also looked solid through his first 5 starts, which includes a complete game shutout and two other outings where he pitched at least 6 innings. More importantly, Clevinger’s hair has looked even better (step aside Noah Syndergaard). Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer help round out the core of the rotation, with Carrasco sitting at 4-1 and Bauer yet to pickup another drone, there is plenty of optimism for the Tribe’s pitching staff. Should the bats wake up a bit (they will) and should Andrew Miller’s hamstring heal (it should), the Indians will likely have an easy enough route to a third straight AL Central title.
AL West: Sho-Yay Ohtani
That’s a terrible attempt at a pun, I know. If anyone has something more clever (surely you do) please contact me. Nonetheless, you have to be saying “yay” if you’re an Angels fan. Japanese rookie Shohei Ohtani has become one of my favourite stories so far this season, silencing many doubters who said he wouldn’t be able to contribute both on the mound and in the batters box. Ohtani signing with the Angels was the biggest signing of the off season. There is always hype when a player comes over from Japan, but when said player is compared to Babe Ruth before playing a single game, surely it must be an exaggeration. Yet, so far Ohtani has proved to be more than competent as a two-way rookie. Most of the doubt with Ohtani was at the plate, with scouts saying he would need time to adjust to Major League pitching. He’s hitting .341 with 4 home runs and 12 RBI’s in 47 plate appearances, with an OPS of 1.065. On the mound, his projections were much more promising and he’s given Angels fans lots to coo at. From consistently pumping fastballs over 95 mph to his split-finger fastball that looks like a wiffleball to his second career start where he was perfect through six innings and only allowed one hit. Again, it’s been only a month but damn has it been a good month for Ohtani. I’m fully hopping on his bandwagon of hype and absolutely love watching this guy pitch and swing the bat.
Sidebar: Another AL West surprise has been the Mariners, who are second in the division behind reigning World Champs Houston. Seattle is off to their best start since 2003. Jean Jacket Segura and Robinson Cano are one of the best middle infield combos in the American League, hitting .298 and .313 respectively. Meanwhile, they acquired Dee Gordon in the Marlins yard sale during the offseason, and he’s been a great addition. Hitting .309 while swiping 10 bases already. If the starting rotation can clean things up a bit and their bats can continue to improve, the Mariners may be contending for a wild card spot at seasons end.
NL East: Are the Mets Legit?
The Mets got out to the hottest start in the National League, winning 11 of their first 12 games to take a large early lead in the division. They’ve cooled off a bit since then and are 17-9 heading into May. Noah Syndergaard has already thrown more innings than he did all last season and has looked dominant, striking out 46 batters in 34.2 innings, which is 4th in the NL. Two strikeouts ahead of Syndergaard is teammate Jacob DeGrom, the other half of the two headed beast at the top of this Mets rotation. DeGrom is 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA, and has been a hair better than Syndergaard thus far. After these two, there is a large drop off, which is why I question the long term viability of this team. Matt Harvey was relegated to the bullpen after just two starts, forcing Mickey Callaway to find someone to fill the 5th rotation spot. It may go to Jason Vargas but I’m not sure, I don’t think the Mets are sure. Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz have both been hit and miss, and Jeurys Familia is 9 for 12 in save opportunities. The pitching staff will remain one of the biggest variables for the Mets throughout the season. An injury to either DeGrom or Syndergaard would likely result in the panic button being smashed to pieces. The bottom half of the rotation is going to have to pull their weight if this team wants to continue their early season success.
Offensively, Asdrubal Cabrera has been the biggest bright spot, with his .340 batting average being third best in the National League. Off season pickups Todd Frazier (.395 OBP) and Adrian Gonzalez (17 RBI) have been decent. Yoenis Cespedes is second in the NL with 25 RBI and leads the team with 6 home runs, but he also leads the National League in strikeouts. Again, I’m concerned about how consistent this offence can be long term, causing me to question the legitimacy of this Mets club. Nonetheless, they’ve enjoyed a solid opening month and will piggyback on their hot start to distance themselves from divisional opponents. Just cross your fingers that starting pitchers named Noah and Jacob stay healthy, and that Matt Harvey doesn’t get totally lost in the sauce and can provide stability should he stay in the bullpen.
NL Central: Who am I supposed to like??
If one month is any indication, the National League Central is proving to be one of the deepest divisions in all of baseball. Only one team out of the five has a losing record (sorry Cincy fans, that’s the only mention you get), and 1.5 games separate the fourth place team, St. Louis, from the division leading Cubbies, who were the preseason division favourite. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the two NL wildcard spots came from the Central.
The Brewers, who had an active offseason that gave them one of the best outfields in the National League, have looked terrific at times. The Brew Crew have loved the long ball, their 32 home runs as a team is 4th in the National League. And while their rotation has yet to really establish an ace, the Brewers pitching staff has a combined 3.20 ERA, second in the National League. Chase Anderson currently leads the way with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have been somewhat of a surprise. After losing Andrew McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole in the offseason, the Bucs are still competing, sitting half a game back of the Cubs as of writing. Corey Dickerson, who they got from the Rays this winter, has led the way on offence. The left-fielder is hitting .313, 6th in the National League and has filled the outfield hole left by McCutchen quite nicely. Nick Kingham recently stole the show on the mound, tossing a perfect game into the seventh inning in his MLB debut. The performance has earned the rookie a spot in the Pirates rotation, which from top to bottom has been passable through one month. Keep an eye on this Pirates team, they could easily fly into the playoffs under the radar due to the absence of a true superstar.
I’m excited to revisit this division throughout the year. I still think the Cubs are the clear favourite and feature one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league, but the teams that follow are holding their own. This could make for some exciting divisional play late in the year with (hopefully) some wild card implications.
NL West: D-Backs Rotation is Roaring
After the Red Sox, the Diamondbacks have been the most impressive ball club through the first month. The consistently dominant yet still underappreciated Paul Goldschmidt has been his usual self, while outfielders AJ Pollock and David Peralta have also been impressive at the plate for Arizona. But the biggest takeaway from the first month has been the D-Backs pitching. Their staff currently leads the National League in ERA (2.96), is third in strikeouts (280) and saves (11) showing the reliability throughout the rotation and into the bullpen. Patrick Corbin is emerging as the ace of the starting rotation, posting a perfect 4-0 record through April and striking out 55 batters in 40 innings of work with a very impressive 0.75 WHIP. The two Zack’s (Godley and Greinke) have been solid, with Godley going 4-1 in April and Greinke has looked sharp, striking out 10 in his most recent start against the Dodgers. Robbie Ray looked terrific prior to an oblique strain that landed him on the 10-day DL.
Should this rotation continue to dominate the way it has been early on, the Diamondbacks could make some solid ground on their already 5.5 game lead in the National League West. Don’t count out the Dodgers though, who are my top pick for the “it’s only been one month, they’ll figure it out” award. Their offence is always dangerous and as previously mentioned, Kershaw is 1-4. My baseball loving gut knows the baseball gods can’t possibly allow him to continue to struggle. Then again, what do I know?
Again, it’s been one month. There is still an insane amount of baseball to be played. Injuries will happen, trades may happen, hopefully more brawls happen. All I know is I love this time of year, it’s full of optimism for a lot of teams and provides lots of stats to overreact to. I’ll likely read this in October and laugh at how wrong I was about some things. Until then, get out and enjoy some baseball. There’s tons of it to go around.