1. American League East
The big three of the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox put all others to shame, even if the Red Sox were sluggish out of the gate. It will come down to the final week of the season, and Boston should be in the mix by that time. There are few weaknesses with these squads that can be regularly exploited, making this the top division in baseball.
Tampa Bay’s rotation is powerful and can negate most offenses. It is hard to see another team regularly beating David Price, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Evan Longoria is a stud, Carl Crawford a joy to watch, and several hitters are actually not performing up to previous seasons, including Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton.
Can the Tampa rotation shutdown the powerhouse Yankee lineup with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texeria and Robinson Cano leading the assault? Rodriguez and Texeria have started slow, but how long can that last? CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett is about as strong a rotation as one can get outside of Tampa. Mariano Rivera is ageless, remaining an automatic save. Injuries are a concern here with some age beginning to finally show in their armor.
Will Josh Beckett be Josh Beckett, Jon Lester become a Cy Young candidate, and John Lackey the player he was on the west coast? The Boston lineup does seem to be lacking its usual pop. Victor Martinez is the lone player that seems to be capable of rebounding. David Ortiz lacks bat speed and must be replaced. The return of Jacoby Ellsbury will be an asset, taking some of the pressure off Dustin Pedroia and the rest of the lineup.
The Toronto Blue Jays always seem to flirt just above .500 as well, although the loss of Roy Halladay will surely be felt as the season grinds forward. Vernon Wells is back to being an All-Star type player and Ricky Romero has pitched like Halladay. The lineup lacks spunk outside of Wells, although they have mastered the long ball early in the year.
The Baltimore Orioles are better than the record indicates and will be a team to watch in the next season or two. With a young nucleus of Matt Wieters, Nicholas Markakis, and Brian Matusz, experience is the lacking piece. Four regulars are hitting under .225 and after Kevin Millwood and Matusz, the rotation is shaky. Prospects Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta could arrive soon to help the starting five.
2. National League East
Two teams underperforming and two over performing squads make this landscape quite interesting. And Florida has enough quality pieces to make a run at any time. The Phillies have the lineup but lack some pitching depth to be a true powerhouse, but they are the closest.
The Philadelphia Phillies are still the favorites. Getting Jimmy Rollins back in mid-to-late May will be a major boost. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard figure to see their numbers go northward with Rollins back, and Jayson Werth is rapidly improving. Any rotation with Roy Halladay is one to fear. J.A. Happ has been shelved for much of the year and Joe Blanton just returned. Cole Hamels will need to revert to his 2008 form for the Phillies to remain ahead in a tough division.
The Atlanta Braves, in Bobby Cox’ last season, have not met expectations. They have a mix of youth, with Jason Heyward and Tommy Hansen, and veterans, with Chipper Jones and Derek Lowe, that should be making noise near the top of the division but have come out slowly. Don’t expect that to last. Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Yunel Escobar have to improve. Ditto Jair Jurrjens (once healthy) and Kenshin Kawakami.
The New York Mets have played well, running off a streak of wins in late April after a horrendous start. The question marks with the pitching staff, however, has to catch up with this squad. Oliver Perez is a cardiac kid that can be breathtaking one day and ordinary another. Mike Pelfrey has been impressive and Johan Santana is someone to believe in but is no longer one of the top pitchers that people pay money to see. Carlos Beltran’s addition to a lineup will be a boost, but David Wright, Jose Reyes and Jason Bay don’t scare as many people as they may have in the past.
A team that is capable of playing tough baseball in any series, the Florida Marlins are seeking the winning combination. They have pitching, a lineup that can score and will be a tough opponent throughout the season. Power prospect Michael Stanton will enhance the lineup when he is called up. Hainley Ramirez is still dynamic but needs more help than Dan Uggla. An extra-base hit would be nice from Chris Coughlin (zero in 24 games through May 6). Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez make a strong one through three.
The Washington Nationals will improve on the mound when Stephen Strasburg is elevated from the minors and Drew Storen joins the back end of the bullpen. Resting your fate on the continued success of Livan Hernandez and Luis Atilano may be asking a bit much. The lineup has balance but lacks that one true threat outside of Ryan Zimmerman. It feels like this team is getting by with smoke and mirrors.
3. National League West
A well-balanced division with no team expected to run away with it. All are capable of taking the crown, doing it in different ways.
The San Francisco Giants have the pitching, especially now that Barry Zito is living up to his enormous contract. With Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, and an equally strong bullpen, the offense only needs timely hitting to rack up wins. Another productive bat would be useful here to help Pablo Sandoval, Bengie Molina, and Édgar Rentería. Insert Buster Posey – and soon. Posey is one of the top prospects in baseball and would be an immediate help, but Molina’s success with the bat has kept Posey down.
The San Diego Padres preached winning at home and have done their part, claiming Petco Park as a place where they can dominate by utilizing speed and execution of small ball. The pitching staff has excelled, and the offense should improve in the second half, as the younger players mature. Chase Headley and Adrian Gonzalez are the lone regulars batting over .261. Oddly enough, the staff is doing their best without Chris Young. Thus far, Jon Garland has been worth the money while Wade LeBlanc has been terrifyingly good in Young’s stead.
A formidable top two in Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa (health pending) make the Colorado Rockies a tough team to play. Jhoulys Chacin is here to stay – a top prospect with another eclectic arm. Aaron Cook has not pitched well but is a former 16-game winner. The offense is stable with plenty of pop, young stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez anchor a lineup that still contains professional hitters Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe.
Eyeing a resurgence when Brandon Webb returns, the Arizona Diamondbacks are attempting to weather the storm. Dan Haren and Ian Kennedy have pitched well while the dynamic arm of Edwin Jackson seeks consistency. A powerful lineup that leads the National League in homers will be in every game. Kelly Johnson is a new man, Chris Young is hitting for average and has immense power, and Mark Reynolds can go deep at any time. A return of Miguel Montero would also be welcome.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have not received the pitching they expected when the season began. Chad Billingsley has been erratic. Clayton Kershaw, a future All-Star, has issued far too many walks. Hiroki Kuroda may be the lone player pitching above expectations. Offensively, a healthy Manny Ramirez will help. Andre Ethier is living up to the hype from previous years. James Loney continues to be a high average hitter. Matt Kemp may be the surprise, as he is not setting the world on fire, as many expected, and has been caught stealing six times already.
4. American League Central
This figures to be a two-team race from start to finish, and one team, the Twins, could easily pull away and win before the pennant race really kicks in.
No Joe Nathan? No problem for the Minnesota Twins. Jon Rauch has been money as the team’s closer. The resurgence of Francisco Liriano has been the early season key. The stuff is electric and the command precise, making a deadly combination. Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey have pitched well. A rebound from Nick Blackburn shouldn’t be far off. An explosive offense with a core of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer, gives them a chance each night. Jason Kubel will rebound at some point, as he is more of a .300 hitter than the current average suggests.
With Miguel Cabrera putting up MVP type numbers, the Detroit Tigers are looking to hang close and pounce when the opportunity is presented. Austin Jackson is making those Rookie of the Year predictions look well informed. A strong bullpen has been the story for the Tigers with Joel Zumaya and Jose Valverde anchoring the eighth and ninth innings. Justin Verlander hasn’t been sharp but will improve, and Rick Porcello is better than the numbers indicate.
Where is the hitting in the Windy City? The Chicago White Sox are dead last in the majors in hitting. Gordon Beckham has suffered the sophomore slump and Carlos Quentin is a shell of the 100-RBI man from 2008. Alexis Rios, Paul Konerko and Andruw Jones are the only ones contributing regularly. Meanwhile, Jake Peavy doesn’t look like an ace and has developed control issues. Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia have been ordinary. Only John Danks has performed well and his numbers are too good.
The Sox wish they had Scott Podsednik, now with the Kansas City Royals. He has been a catalyst for the Royals lineup with Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo the emerging stars. Jose Guillen also remains a steady RBI threat. The newly called up Kila Ka'aihue is but another potent bat. Zack Greinke has yet to win a game, despite stellar stuff and a low ERA. The rest of the rotation, however, has been suspect. To win games, the Royals must hit.
Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-soo Choo have All-Star talent for the Cleveland Indians and will be buoyed when catcher and hitting machine Carlos Santana is promoted from Triple-A. Where is Grady Sizemore? Can Travis Hafner rebound? Will Matt LaPorta fill the void? They may want to play Austin Kearns more. Quick, name a pitcher not named Fausto Carmona? Can’t? We can’t either. That pretty much says it all.
5. American League West
A division of mediocrity will make for a fun pennant race but won’t scare many teams once the playoffs arrive. In the only division with four teams, every team has a chance to oust the competition.
Hitting has never been an issue in Arlington. The Texas Rangers have the offensive arsenal to compete. Getting Ian Kinsler back was vital. Vladimir Guerrero is still a scary man to oppose. Nelson Cruz is a monster. Josh Hamilton has the swagger again. Justin Smoak will improve and Elvis Andrus adds speed and the ability to reach base. They may have more pitching than ever this season. C.J. Wilson has been great since moved from the pen. Rich Harden just has to keep the ball in the yard to be effective. The bullpen has been a plus with Darren O’Day. Chris Ray, Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz keeping the opposition at bay.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim do not look like the team that has taken the division five times in the last six seasons. Kendry Morales is the real deal. Torri Hunter and Bobby Abreu can both handle the stick. The Yankees look smart for allowing Hideki Matsui to leave. It is hard to believe Brandon Wood was once one of the top prospects in baseball. Outside of Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana, the pitching is filled with question marks, especially how far Scott Kazmir has fallen.
With no hitter collecting more than four home runs, the Oakland Athletics lineup does not put much scare into the opposition. Daric Barton, Ryan Sweeney and even Kevin Kouzmanoff are manufacturing runs – a team built more for National League play. Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez provide stability in the rotation while Andrew Bailey and Michael Wuertz can close out the game. Giving the bullpen a lead to hold is an issue for this lineup.
Two players hitting over .300. One hitting around .250. Every other player under .220. Not the kind of offense Jack Zduriencik envisioned for the Seattle Mariners. They not only can’t reach base via the single, they also have the fewest homers in the majors. Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki are the only ones carrying their weight. Heck, they might be the only two hitting their weight. Felix Hernandez is still the king. Getting Cliff Lee backs gives them one of the best one-two combinations in the game. Will anyone amongst Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman step it up?
6. National League Central
Curses, bad teams, worse teams, and brutal teams line this division with only one team suitable for postseason play.
The St. Louis Cardinals remain the class of the division. One of the toughest teams to play at home, the Cards have an unsung hero early in the year – David Freese. While everyone was concerned about the protection of Albert Pujols (which is an oxymoron since he protects himself), Freese has stepped in as the number five hitter to give Matt Holliday some protection. The emergence of Colby Rasmus has also helped off-set the regression of Ryan Ludwick. Yadier Molina may be the most underrated player in the game. Left-hander Jaime Garcia may be a rookie, but he isn’t acting like one. Adam Wainwright and Brad Penny have been superb. Oh yea, they have this guy named Chris Carpenter too. Anyone doubting the prowess of pitching coach Dave Duncan and the lowest team ERA in baseball?
Looking to gain a spark the same way the Mets did when they called up Ike Davis, the Chicago Cubs will look to shortstop phenom Starlin Castro for a jolt. So far so good, considering his debut. With five regulars hitting over .300 – Ryan Theriot, Marlon Byrd, Geovany Soto, Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano – hitting really isn’t the issue, although it would help if the core of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were having their usual seasons. With three starting pitchers posting sub-3.00 ERAs - Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Silva, Ryan Dempster – it’s hard to pinpoint the exact issue here. They are the Cubs?
Seven blown saves from the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen speaks volumes about the state of the team. Trevor Hoffman and LaTroy Hawkins have the highest ERA’s on the team and six blown saves between them. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf have provided quality starts but the rotation behind those two is lacking. The third best hitting team in the National League will get even better when Prince Fielder heats up. Ryan Braun has carried the offensive load with Casey McGehee providing a nice compliment. Rickie Weeks appears to be on the cusp of meeting his potential and Alcides Escobar could be a few months away from seeing his considerable talent rise to the forefront.
Yes, the Cincinnati Reds can hit the long ball. The lineup as a whole, however, has been underwhelming. Joey Votto is a hitter that can strike fear. They lack a sparkplug, however, that can kick start a rally or big inning. Drew Stubbs has been in over his head. Brandon Phillips has never been a high average player. Jay Bruce remains inconsistent. Even Micah Owings hasn’t notched a hit this year. Rookie Mike Leake has been their best pitcher, despite never pitching in the minors. No other starter has an ERA under 5.00.
There are a few things to like about the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least on the hitting front. Andy LaRoche could reach his high ceiling with continued at-bats. Andrew McCutchen is playing like the top prospect he was. Ryan Doumit is an above-average hitting catcher. Garrett Jones is maturing rapidly in the box. The pitching isn’t good, unless you believe that leading the majors with the highest ERA by nearly a run is good. Take away Evan Meek and things are even worse.
Fighting it out for the first overall selection in the 2011 draft shouldn’t be a problem for the Houston Astros. Not only are they the weakest hitting team in the NL, they also have the fewest homers. Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman forgot how to hit – all under .215 to begin the year. Michael Bourn is about the only one producing, but no one is driving him in. Roy Oswalt remains a more than capable starter and Brett Myers has pitched well. Without an offense to back them up, Matt Lindstrom has precious few opportunities to close the door.
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